At the time of the Supreme Court ruling five months ago, Jesse Jackson charged that its effect would be a "kind of ethnic cleansing." Even for a man given to racial hyperbole, Jackson was particularly incendiary: "At night," he declared, "the enemies of civil rights strike in white sheets, burning churches. By day, they strike in black robes, burning opportunities."
What provoked this equating the Supreme Court with the Ku Klux Klan? The court's June ruling on racial gerrymandering.
In response to the theory that blacks could not truly exercise their voting rights unless they are assigned to black-majority congressional districts, some states had begun redrawing them with the purpose of corralling as many minorities as possible into one district. The results were some extremely bizarre geographic concoctions. One such, the 12th District in North Carolina, extended 200 miles along Interstate 85 in order to connect several black populations and create a majority-minority district.
Suit was brought challenging the constitutionality of this practice. The Supreme Court ruled that these districts were a species of political apartheid and ordered them redrawn to bring more contiguous populations into congressional districts, even if that meant racial mixing.
Jesse Jackson was not the only member of the civil rights establishment to go ballistic. Elaine Jones, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that the decision would "torch the fundamental rights of African Americans, Hispanics and others to be included as participatory citizens in this democracy."
Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Post that he saw "a dangerous parallel" between this decision and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of a century ago.
Payne's charge illustrates the Orwellian character of so much of what passes for discourse on race these days. Plessy v. Ferguson endorsed the doctrine of separate but equal. Bush v. Vera and Shaw v. Hunt, the rulings that so exercised Payne, held that separate but equal, racially homogeneous voting districts are unconstitutional. It is precisely the proponents of racial gerrymandering who would continue the practice of ethnically cleansed congressional districts.
Well, say proponents, the Supreme Court may have had good intentions in mandating racially mixed districts, but the effects of its decision would be to radically reduce, indeed decimate, black representation in Congress. Theodore Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said the result would be that minority members of Congress "could meet in the back seat of a taxicab."
Election Day put that proposition to the test. What happened?
In Georgia, two majority-minority districts were redrawn to make them now majority white. One was held by Sanford Bishop, the other by Cynthia McKinney.
Bishop's race was going to be the real test. If Bishop won, Prof. Ronald Walters told the New Republic, "it would go against a mountain of evidence compiled by lawyers to draw minority-majority districts in the first place."
So much for the mountain of evidence. Bishop beat his white opponents in a walk. He got 59 percent of the vote in the primaries and 54 percent in the general election. This in a district that is now 65 percent white.
The Bishop success might be explained by his relative conservatism. That won't work for Cynthia McKinney, however. She is one of the most liberal members of the House. Yet she won going away with 58 percent of the vote -- in a district also 65 percent white.
Same story in Texas, where two African American incumbents, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Sheila Jackson Lee, won in districts that had been majority black and were now majority white.
True, one seat did go from a black representative to a white one. Cleo Fields decided not to contest the election in his redrawn district. But while blacks lost the Fields seat, they gained one in Indiana. Julia Carson became the first black representative from Indianapolis, winning in an overwhelmingly white district.
So what became of the decimation of black representation? The 104th Congress had 38 African American members (excluding the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia). The 105th Congress will have 37. The net loss is Gary Franks, a Connecticut Republican, who lost for reasons having nothing to do with gerrymandering and nothing to do with race.
The fundamental premise of racial gerrymandering is the patronizing notion that blacks can win only in carefully constructed, overwhelmingly black districts. It isn't often that political theories are put to the test. This one was. And it failed miserably.