Race and Redistricting
The Washington Post
For the second time in two years the Supreme Court has, by the narrowest of margins, decided a redistricting case from Georgia in favor of those opposed to redrawing districts racially so as to guarantee an African American majority within them. Last week's ruling focused once again on plans drawn up after the 1990 census. Since then, the state legislature, the Justice Department and the federal courts all have been trying to come up with a constitutionally acceptable map. Plans have been devised to create one, two and three majority African American districts out of the state's 11. And now the high court has ruled that a single such district is enough because it is impossible to create a second or third without using race as an overriding factor in drawing the boundaries.
This latest decision is surely a disappointment to those favoring the creation of a maximum number of safe districts for blacks. But their greatest setback occurred two years ago when the court overturned a long-standing assumption about the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department had, for 30 years, interpreted the law as not just allowing, but requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to draw as many majority-minority districts as possible. It was the Justice Department that more or less forced Georgia to create three such districts after the last census. But when a case testing that plan reached the Supreme Court in 1995, the justices ruled that while it is all right to take race into account in redistricting, it must not be the overriding consideration. The legislature failed in its attempt to implement this rather vague standard and the federal court came up with the one-district plan the justices now have approved.
The power of the Justice Department to regulate voting law changes such as redistricting plans was critical to the federal effort to eliminate historic discrimination against minority voters and candidates. That power is still on the books, but it has been greatly weakened by the court. It is worth noting, however, the evidence that white voters, even in the Deep South, are overcoming their traditional bias against voting for blacks and are moving away from the kind of discrimination the law was intended to combat. In the last election, for example, two white-majority districts in Georgia elected African Americans to Congress. In one district, black candidates had received 55 percent of the white vote in the primary, and Rep. Cynthia McKinney defeated her white opponent in the runoff, garnering 23 percent of the white vote. In the other district, Rep. Sanford Bishop, the black candidate who was elected, acknowledged that significant white crossover voting contributed to his victory. Both members of Congress have warned that incumbency gave them a special advantage, so their experiences shouldn't be taken as a sign that discrimination has disappeared. But it has surely been diminishing.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company