The Magazine

Race to the Bottom

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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WE ARE LIVING IN another low, dishonest decade, it seems--at least where the intersection of race and American electoral politics is concerned.

Following the 1990 census, the Republican National Committee--determined to press its partisan interests in forthcoming state-by-state congressional reapportionment efforts, and apparently immune to ordinary human embarrassment--fixed on a plan to resegregate the American voting public, especially in the South. Armed with never-before-available precinct-level demographic data from the Census Bureau, GOP computer experts produced revised state and federal election maps featuring bizarrely contorted boundary lines designed to encompass as many super-concentrated black districts as possible. The theory was simple, plausible, and thoroughly repulsive: African Americans are the Democratic party's most reliable, bloc-like constituency. If they could be isolated in a slightly larger but still-small number of "majority-minority" electoral jurisdictions across the country, then all the remaining, thus-Caucasianized districts would become that much more Republican.

Every major political institution in America acquiesced in or outright abetted this scheme; the embarrassment does not end with the RNC. Civil rights groups like the NAACP and ACLU--insisting that "black political interests" can adequately be represented only by black politicians, whom only black voters can be counted on to support--aggressively promoted GOP-sponsored, race-based redistricting proposals in state after state. During the administration of George Bush the elder, states that refused to embrace such bald-faced, apartheid dogma were subjected to dubious but protracted legal attack--charged with violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act--by the Department of Justice. Which continued to support the so-called "max-black" reapportionment strategy even after Bill Clinton became president--the Democratic party apparently having decided to abandon its marginal white incumbents rather than deny its activist minority base a few more elective-office victories.

And the federal courts? To a great extent, the judicial branch of government signed off on all this cynicism. No, ruled the Supreme Court's "conservative" 5-4 majority in 1995, Georgia, for example, may not enact a redistricting system founded so obviously and exclusively on racial considerations. The Voting Rights Act does not, in fact, require that electoral boundaries be drawn simply in order to expand membership in the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Fourteenth Amendment forbids such nakedly pigment-conscious ploys in any case. But if the pigment-conscious ploy wears the right kind of fig leaf, the same Supreme Court majority would subsequently explain--if the maps can be made to look reasonably neat and sensible, and if a state can muster a straight-faced claim that its new "majority-minority" districts exist only as the coincidental byproduct of some traditionally accepted political enterprise, like unvarnished partisan gerrymandering...well, that's pretty much okay. In short: A measure of discretion is necessary, and a thumbs-up from the NAACP is nice, too, but at the end of the day, yes: States like Georgia may transfer their black citizens out of mixed-race congressional districts and into ballot-booth Bantustans at the behest, and for the benefit, of Republican campaign officials.

Those were the 1990s.

Now, a brand-new decade has dawned. And a brand-new census has been completed, triggering a brand-new reapportionment effort. In which effort the Democratic party, no longer confident that trading away "white" swing districts for safe "majority-minority" seats elsewhere in the South is such a wise idea, has adopted what appears to be a brand-new position on "max-black" election-mapping techniques. Democratic regulars, African-American officeholders very much included, now resolutely oppose such stuff, and are everywhere working to reverse its past effects. We might be prepared to applaud them for it.

Except that nothing else has changed, really. A shameless, openly acknowledged racialism still suffuses the redistricting process. Both in principle and in practice, the whole business remains just as cynical, just as dishonest, and just as repulsive.