How Gerrymandering Helped American Blacks

By Edmonds, David | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

How Gerrymandering Helped American Blacks


Edmonds, David, New Statesman (1996)


In the US, even voting is affected by "affirmative action".

The relaxed, moustachioed face of the Democrat congressman Melvin Watt is a familiar one around Winston Salem, North Carolina. Watt cheerfully concedes that this is due in large part to the notoriety surrounding his constituency. For when he was first elected in 1992, its contours would have reddened the cheeks of even Elbridge Gerry, the 19th-century governor of Massachusetts whose surname is immortalised in the word "gerrymander" - that vivid word for the murky concept of redrawing voting boundaries to achieve particular electoral outcomes.

Watt's North Carolina 12th District has in fact always been more serpentine or squashed armadillo than the salamander shape of Gerry's electoral district. One hundred and sixty miles long, the boundaries of Watt's constituency were drawn to run from Charlotte in the south-west to Durham in the north-east, weaving in and out of cities, such as Greensboro and Winston Salem, twisting and turning to capture some parts of town and exclude others. At many points it was barely the width of a road. "Look both ways before you cross the constituency," I was advised. There is nothing convoluted about the congressman's reputation, however.

"Congressman Watt is not a good representative. 'Good' is run of the mill. No, he is not a good representative; he is a fantastic representative," said Charlie Smith.

Smith is a 49-year-old African American who works the night shift at the tobacco manufacturers R J Reynolds, the largest employer in Winston Salem. He has fought two wars in his life. One was in Vietnam, where he was sent shortly after the Tet offensive and witnessed his closest friend blown up on a landmine. The other was against the US bureaucracy, after his records were misplaced and he was denied the half a dozen medals for gallantry to which he was entitled.

For years his phone calls and letters of protest got nowhere - at one stage he was even told that he was deluded, that he had never enlisted in the army. Finally, and in desperation, he turned to the black congressman who now represents his district. Within four months the matter had been settled, and the medals had been handed over with a perfunctory apology from the Washington authorities. In a ceremony televised by the local station, Smith tried to express his gratitude to his congressman, but overcome by emotion he barely managed to finish his speech.

The 12th District had its origins in the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most radical and far-reaching pieces of legislation passed by President Lyndon Johnson, who had pressed for the "goddamnedest, toughest voting-rights bill" that could be devised. "Jim Crow" laws had effectively disenfranchised southern blacks; there were poll taxes that few blacks could pay and literacy tests that few blacks could pass. Some Southern registrars were discovered testing black applicants on the number of bubbles in a soap bar.

The 1965 VRA put an end to all that, outlawing all bogus obstacles to voting. The results were immediate and dramatic. In Mississippi, for example, black registration rose from 7 per cent in 1965 to 60 per cent in 1967, a pattern that was repeated elsewhere in the South. Yet the struggle was still only half won. Although blacks could no longer be prevented from putting a cross on the ballot sheet, there were other ways to minimise their political power. A popular tactic, know n in psephology-jargon as "cracking", split concentrations of black voters into several constituencies to prevent a black majority.

The 1982 Voting Rights Act attempted to head off these more sophisticated vote-blocking tactics and was interpreted by the legal system, the Department of Justice and the state legislatures to mean that so-called "majority-minority" districts, - in other words, constituencies where traditional ethnic minorities were in the majority should be created wherever it was feasible to do so. …

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