Racial Gerrymandering

By Bernstein, Mark F. | The Public Interest, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Racial Gerrymandering


Bernstein, Mark F., The Public Interest


When the 102nd Congress convened in January 1991, the Georgia House delegation was comprised of nine Democrats and one Republican - Newt Gingrich. Eight of the Democrats were white (as, of course, is the Republican) and one was black. But more than a quarter of Georgia's citizens are black, and, in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act following the 1990 census, two more black-majority districts had to be drawn.

Finding blacks around whom to draw those districts proved challenging. But, under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department the legislature adopted what was known as the "max-black" plan, which stretched the new Eleventh District for 260 miles, snaking block by block through neighborhoods from Atlanta to Savannah in order to collect enough blacks to form a majority. Just over four years later, Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the House, and the only Democrats in the state's delegation are the three representing the black-majority districts. All the other Georgia congressmen are white Republicans.

If Georgia is the most extreme example of Democratic decline following the creation of black-majority districts, it is by no means the only one. Within the last four years, while the Democratic share of the southern black vote has increased to a near-unanimous 91 percent, its share of the white vote has declined to just 35 percent, which has cost the party seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans hold a majority of southern House seats.

However, if the purpose of the redistricting was to increase black representation in Congress, the Voting Rights Act has actually been a great success. Every one of the newly created black-majority districts elected a black congressman, all of them Democrats. Six southern states elected their first black congressmen since the Hayes administration. And increased numbers have brought increased clout; before Republicans took control of the House, the Congressional Black Caucus influenced national policy on issues ranging from the crime bill to the use of military force in Haiti.

Last summer, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Johnson that the Georgia reapportionment plan unconstitutionally classified citizens according to race. A year earlier, North Carolina's plan, which had also gerrymandered black districts, was called into question and will be reviewed again in the coming term, along with plans from Texas and perhaps Louisiana, as well. More such challenges surely are on the way.

The debate over racial gerrymandering has bred exaggerations on both sides. Cynthia McKinney, elected from Georgia's max-black Eleventh District, warns directly that the Supreme Court's decision will revive segregation. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggests that the drawing of black-majority districts smacks of apartheid, overlooking the fact that most of those districts are no more than 55 percent to 65 percent black and, by that measure, are actually among the most integrated in the country. Republicans contend that racial gerrymandering had little to do with their recent electoral success, ignoring cases where it clearly made the difference. Democrats blame racial gerrymandering for their loss of the House, which was, however, too broad not to have had other causes.

Yet the fact is that the aggressive drawing of black-majority congressional districts has coincided almost exactly with Democratic decline in the House. With the Supreme Court possibly forcing almost a dozen states to draw reapportionment plans from scratch, it is worth assessing to what extent racial gerrymandering actually has contributed to Democratic electoral losses in Congress, in the South, and in the nation as a whole. Can the collapse of the Democratic party's majorities be blamed on racial gerrymandering? Or, to put the question more bluntly, are black electoral success and Democratic electoral success incompatible?

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