Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America

By Desmond S. King; Rogers M. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
“To elect one of their own”
Racial Alliances and Majority-Minority Districts

Persistent as racial housing segregation has been, 2000 census data showed that it was receding slightly in Chicago, and that the Latino presence was growing. Black city aldermen found it difficult to draw a new ward map that would preserve the existing twenty black-majority alderman districts. The chairman of the Chicago City Council’s black caucus, Alderman Ed Smith, nonetheless expressed determination to maintain twenty wards that were at least 65 percent African American. His efforts won support from Illinois state senator Barack Obama. The Chicago-based state legislator observed that as long as “we have hardened racial attitudes reflected in our voting patterns for minorities — to elect one of their own — they still need to have a substantial voting-age majority in neighborhoods and communities.”1 As he did in his constitutional law courses at the University of Chicago, the future president defended the propriety, indeed the necessity, of creating substantial black “majority-minority” districts so that African American voters could gain meaningful political power. He worried “incremental integration” made achieving such power “harder to do.”2

In his 2008 campaign, Obama criticized the Bush Justice Department for failing to file anti-discrimination cases on behalf of African American voters. Obama’s campaign documents noted that as a civil rights lawyer, he had “defended minority voters who challenged redistricting plans that diluted their vote.” But he did not explicitly advocate majority-minority districts.3 Such districts had long been under attack both by proponents of color-blind decision making and by many proponents of race-conscious approaches who regarded majority-minority districts as often operating to weaken, not to enhance, the political influence of nonwhites.4 These “strange bedfellow” critics are often considered counterparts to the “strange bedfellow” political proponents of majority-minority districts. Looking back at the politics of district drawing after the last two censuses, analysts from across the political spectrum reach conclu

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