`Racial Gerrymandering' or Legitimate Remedy for Exclusion?

Article excerpt

The 12th Congressional District of North Carolina is a 160-mile long ribbon, often no wider than the right-of-way of Interstate 85, which it follows from Durham southwest to Charlotte.

The 4th District of Louisiana snakes 600 miles in a giant Z across the state, no more than 80 feet wide at points, and splitting off bits of almost every major city except New Orleans.

What they have in common, besides their odd configurations, is the fact that both were created in the 1992 redistricting as "majority-minority" districts, with large enough percentages of African-American voters to assure they would send black representatives to the House.

They are under attack in the courts, as are other districts in Georgia, Florida and Texas, which critics claim are products of "racial gerrymandering" undertaken by those legislatures to meet the demands of the Justice Department and the federal Voting Rights Act.

Last year, in a case challenging the North Carolina district, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that "redistricting legislation that is so extremely irregular on its face that it rationally can be viewed only as an effort to segregate the races for the purpose of voting" may be subject to challenge under the "equal protection" clause, unless the state has "sufficiently compelling justification" for such a gerrymander.

This week, lawyers are back in court in North Carolina arguing whether such a justification exists. Meantime, a three-judge panel's unanimous ruling that the "Mark of Zorro" district in Louisiana is unconstitutional is headed on appeal to the Supreme Court.

Recently, I talked with the freshman members from those challenged districts, Reps. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., and Cleo Fields, D-La., and with Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La., a second-term member who is helping coordinate strategy on the redistricting cases for the Congressional Black Caucus. They make the compelling case that the courts, in their efforts to mandate color-blind standards for congressional districts, are themselves being blind to history.

Before Jefferson was elected to the House in 1990 from New Orleans, Louisiana had gone 115 years without sending an African-American to Congress. The state is 30 percent black.

Until Watt and Rep. Eva Clayton, a Democrat, were elected in 1992, North Carolina, which is 22 percent black, had sent all-white delegations to Washington for almost a century.

Behind that pattern of exclusion lies the persistence of racial bloc voting - and districting decisions designed to diffuse the black vote enough to keep blacks from dominating any constituency. …