This year, Americans appear to have elected a record 53 African Americans to the House — assuming that Republicans William Hurd of Texas and Mia Love of Utah will win their tight races, which haven’t been called as of this writing. Hurd and Love would be the only two black Republicans in this wave; the 51 others are Democrats. Forty-four were reelected. Of those, four-fifths won reelection from majority-minority districts — defined here as districts where non-Hispanic whites form a minority of the voting-age population according to the 2010 Census. That’s what we’ve seen in the past: Historically, black representatives have been elected from majority-minority districts.
But here’s the big news: Eight of the nine newly elected African Americans won in districts dominated by non-Hispanic whites. Those include Colin Allred from Texas’s 32nd District; Antonio Delgado from New York’s 19th; Jahana Hayes from Connecticut’s 5th; Steven Horsford from Nevada’s 4th; Lucy McBath from Georgia’s 6th; Joe Neguse from Colorado’s 2nd; Ilhan Omar from Minnesota’s 5th; and Lauren Underwood from Illinois’s 14th. A ninth, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts’ 7th District, beat an incumbent white Democrat in the primary in a district where non-Hispanic whites make up 48 percent of the voting-age population and blacks just 21 percent.
Here’s the background
Creating majority-minority districts made an enormous difference in getting African Americans elected to the House. The 1965 Voting Rights Act forced states to create black majority districts in parts of the country where white opposition meant African Americans couldn’t get elected.
But simply having the VRA on the books wasn’t what made the difference. In its 1986 decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, the Supreme Court issued guidelines clarifying when states had to draw black districts or probably lose legal challenges.
And so it was no accident that the number of black elected representatives jumped from 25 in 1990 to 38 in 1992, just after the 1990 Census. That was the first redistricting after Thornburg.
The Voting Rights Act’s protections have been vital to the election of the vast majority of African American lawmakers — not just in the 1990s, but right up until this month’s election. Tom Brunell, Bernard Grofman, Lisa Handley and I found that 85 percent of African American members of the House elected in 2007 won in districts where African Americans form a majority or African Americans and Latinos together are a majority. In that latter group, high rates of non-citizenship and low Latino participation rates often mean that African Americans make up a majority of voters.
When we looked at more recent elections, little had changed. As of 2015, 88 percent of African Americans in the U.S. House represented majority-minority districts. That has been true in state legislative elections as well. More than 95 percent of black state legislators elected in the 11 Southern states held districts like these. That was also true for more than 80 percent of black state legislators elected in non-Southern states with a population that was at least 10 percent black and thus more likely to elect African Americans than other states.
The parties are increasingly divided by racial attitudes — and voters increasingly support their party’s candidate, regardless of race
So it is particularly striking that all nine new black members of Congress, all Democrats, don’t come from these primarily black or primarily black and Latino districts. All won in districts where non-Hispanic blacks make up less than 21 percent of the voting-age population. Except for Pressley’s narrowly majority-minority district, the eight others represent seats in which non-Hispanic whites form clear majorities, on average, making up 73 percent of the eligible voters. What’s more, although most black representatives hold safe Democratic districts, six of these eight newly elected representatives took seats previously held by Republicans.
All eight of these new black representatives couldn’t have been elected without substantial white support. Again, Pressley is an exception; after she defeated the incumbent in the primary, she had no opposition in the general election.
And what that suggests is that, increasingly, voters may support their party’s candidates regardless of race. Consider the fact that, in his bid for the Florida governor’s office, Andrew Gillum (D), who is black, received nearly identical shares of the vote across the state as did Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who is white. Even if race explains Nelson’s slightly better performance in his contest, the 0.7 percent difference is not large.
Does this mean that race is somehow melting away as a factor in the age of Trump?
Hardly. Exit polls from the 2018 U.S. House election indicate that 90 percent of African Americans voted Democratic, as did 69 percent of Latinos and 77 percent of Asian Americans. In contrast, just 44 percent of whites voted for Democrats. Scholarship shows that what you believe about racial issues and immigration is increasingly significant in determining which party you’ll support.
This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the Voting Rights Act’s protections for minority groups. Even with these eight new black representatives elected from white-majority districts, 68 percent of Congress’s 53 black representatives still represent majority-minority districts. Whether whites will support African Americans in a Democratic primary varies nationwide.
What these nine new black members of Congress tell us is that black nominees who capture their party’s nomination may now be able to win even in tough districts. Of course, they may lose when the tide turns against their party, but that’s true for all politicians.
David Lublin (@theseventhstate) is a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University, and author most recently of “Minority Rules: Electoral Systems, Decentralization and Ethnoregional Parties” (Oxford University Press, 2014).