LEGALIZED RACIAL segregation in legislative districts took a body blow from the Supreme Court this month. It could mark a return to the ''melting pot'' concept of electing lawmakers.
The court ruled that legislative boundaries cannot be set with an overriding focus on race. That had been the case under the Voting Rights Act, which was used after the 1990 census to get districts drawn expressly to elect blacks and Hispanics.
Not any longer. Some truly egregious examples of racial gerrymandering helped the court make up its mind.
No melting pot
Districts drawn in the early 1990s segregated citizens by race. For instance, in Baltimore, nearly all blacks were jammed into the 7th District, and nearly all whites were placed in districts with a white congressman. The notion of creating an American melting pot disappeared. The lone objective was to create legislative seats for minority candidates.
As a result, American politics has moved toward the extremes. When your constituency is solidly black or white, you need not worry about pleasing the other group.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of the 7th District, for instance, had no qualms about voting against welfare-reform efforts in Wisconsin (the only Maryland congressman to do so) because he knew it would be popular with his 73-percent non-white constituency.
Conversely, 2nd District Rep. Robert Ehrlich had no qualms voting against a higher minimum wage and demagoging the low-income-housing issue because it played well with his 92-percent white constituency.
In each case, there was no strong, countervailing force within the district to make the congressman think twice about taking an extreme position.
Same in Annapolis
The same thing has happened in Annapolis, where gerrymandering along racial lines led to a surge of minority districts with lopsided numbers of blacks. This meant far fewer white districts with substantial black populations. Too many issues are becoming strictly a black or white matter.
Thus, the Voting Rights Act has imposed a racial tinge on legislative matters. It has polarized things. It helped Newt Gingrich rise to power: Packing liberal, black Democratic voters into a few districts meant that previously moderate, bi-racial districts became lily-white and conservative.
The Supreme Court now apparently wants states to draw legislative lines emphasizing not race but districts that are compact, contiguous and respect natural boundaries and political borders. That's the way it used to be.
District lines might once again make sense. Instead of Mr. Ehrlich's district leaping the Patapsco into Anne Arundel County, a re-drawn 2nd District might add precincts of Baltimore County and the adjacent city now served by Rep. Benjamin Cardin.
In turn, Mr. Cardin's gerrymandered, reverse-C shaped district might add more black city precincts. Mr. Cummings' district could pick up some of Mr. Cardin's white precincts in the suburbs. All three districts would be more compact and more diverse.
It would have a chain reaction throughout every Maryland congressional district. Similarly in Annapolis, boundaries based primarily on the old criteria would encourage biracial districts.
In the short run, that might lead to fewer minority seats, but
long-term it will give more minority politicians a better chance to win in biracial districts.
A chance down the road
For example, Rep. Steny Hoyer's 5th District used to have a minority population of 35 percent. Down the road, a black stood a good chance at winning.
But by carving up Mr. Hoyer's old district in 1991 to pack Prince George's County blacks into a special ''minority-majority'' district, the legislature left Mr. Hoyer's new district with far fewer minorities -- 23 percent. That seat will remain in a white politician's hands for years to come.
This also prompted the agile Mr. Hoyer to abandon his liberal posture so popular with his black constituents and instead cast more conservative votes -- 59 percent last year -- in line with his new, heavily white district.
No longer does Mr. Hoyer have to worry about forging biracial coalitions to get reelected. Nor does Rep. Albert Wynn in his 67-percent minority district.
But apparently race-based, segregated districting is passe. In extreme cases, such as grotesque districts in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas, that means big changes in statewide congressional maps either this year or in 1998.
For Maryland, the changes won't occur until the 2002 elections. By then, race-based districts may be a relic of the past, and not a moment too soon.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/30/96