Racial Gerrymandering Could Diminish Minority Influence

Article excerpt

What I represent is the fresh face of the New South," says Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, one of the 16 new black members elected to Congress in 1992. "But unfortunately, that's too much for some of our good old boys to take."

She was talking about a September federal court decision that said her district is unconstitutional because it was drawn for the sole purpose of electing a black. She didn't acknowledge a fact vividly illustrated by the November election: Some of the good old boys had every reason to favor the creation of districts like hers.

The reason is that to ensure that blacks get elected to Congress, you have to concentrate black voters in a few districts - which in practice makes every other district perceptibly less Democratic. It may come as a surprise to learn that after black politicians, the strongest proponents of racial gerrymandering are Republican politicians.

They don't see it as accidental that the race-conscious reapportionment that occurred after the 1990 census, dictated by the Voting Rights Act of 1982, was followed in due course by a GOP takeover of the House. In the last two elections, the number of black House members from McKinney's Georgia has risen to three from one, but the number of Republicans has jumped to seven from one, out of 11 in all. This year, the GOP won a majority of House races in the South.

When blacks and Republicans worked together on reapportionment to maximize minority representation, Republicans got the better deal. "Look at the results," Benjamin Ginsberg, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee, told The New York Times. "We'd be nuts to want to see these districts abolished."

But those districts may indeed be abolished. Last year, the Supreme Court threw out a serpentine North Carolina district that was so "bizarre" in its shape that it could "be understood only as an effort to segregate voters into separate voting districts because of their race."

Since then, federal courts have struck down one minority-dominated district in Louisiana, three in Texas and one in Georgia.

The Supreme Court, however, left vague just how big a role race may play in redistricting decisions. So the fate of black and Hispanic districts remains in doubt. But the court decisions and the election returns may compel blacks and Hispanics to ask if their interests - or the nation's - are really served by political arrangements that isolate minority voters in minority districts. …