The Supreme Court has "eviscerated" the Voting Rights Act, a New York
Times editorial declared on June 30, the day after the Court ruled five to
four that it is unconstitutional to use the race of voters as the "predominant"
factor in drawing the lines of congressional districts. A dejected Cynthia
McKinney, whose Georgia district was the focus of the Court's scrutiny, warned
that the decision in Miller v. Johnson might lead to the "ultimate
bleaching of the U.S. Congress." Some melodramatic critics even likened the
Miller decision to Dred Scott, the 1857 Court ruling that blacks
were not citizens of the U.S. and "had no rights which the white man was bound
If the critics of Miller are right, the future of black political
representation in Congress is grim, and blacks ought to mobilize to salvage
what they can of racial districting. But another interpretation suggests a
different response. The Court's decision may not diminish black influence in
congressional elections, and it may not doom black candidates for Congress. And
rather than diminishing the legislative strength of minorities, the decision
may well enhance minority influence in Congress by enabling liberal candidates
with agendas more friendly to African Americans to get elected in districts
adjacent to some of the current black-majority districts. The Supreme Court
handed down a decision; it didn't hand down the future. Much of what happens
now depends on how the Congressional Black Caucus and other black leaders
respond to new judicial and political realities.
WHY MILLER ISN'T FATAL
Critics of the Miller decision have greatly overstated its likely impact
on minority representatives. The redrawing of the offending district lines does
not mean that current black and Latino incumbents will automatically lose their
Most current black incumbents will not be fatally affected by the Miller
ruling. Racial gerrymandering is not an issue for the numerous black
representatives of geographical areas with large compact minority populations.
The growing number of black politicians elected from districts without black
majorities will also have little cause for concern over the Court's ruling.
Black Democrats Ronald Dellums, Alan Wheat, and Bill Clay and black Republicans
Gary Franks and J.C. Watts have shown that white voters in congressional
elections will support black candidates. Similarly, the elections of Illinois
Senator Carol Moseley Braun, former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, Ohio
Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell, and New York Comptroller Carl McCall show that
race is no longer an insurmountable barrier to black electoral success at the
state level as well. Carl McCall's victory was especially significant as he was
the only New York Democrat to win statewide in 1994.
Many black incumbents, moreover, have been anticipating that the Supreme Court
would rule against race-conscious districting since last year's decisions in
two earlier cases, Johnson v. DeGrandy and Holder v. Hall, and
have been gathering resources in anticipation of more competitive campaigns.
Georgia's McKinney and North Carolina's Mel Watts, for example, have reached
out to white voters and eagerly sought to build biracial coalitions. They will
now be in a stronger position to gain white votes than in previous elections.
Critics of Miller are also missing two other important facts. First, the
Court did not authorize white officials to return to the old practice of
breaking up compact minority populations into separate districts to dilute
their voting power. Miller does not overturn Beer v. United States
(1976), which led to a no-retrogression policy interpreted by the courts to
mean that a redistricting plan or an electoral change cannot leave minority
voters worse off. Thus, while partisan gerrymanders are certainly possible,
black incumbents in compact minority districts have some protection against
regressive redistricting plans.
Second, even if the Court had approved race-conscious districting, the strategy
of grouping together black voters in the same district to elect blacks to
Congress has nearly been exhausted. Today there are few places where African
Americans are concentrated enough to create more black-majority districts.
Philadelphia's 1st district, New York's 16th and 17th, and Mississippi's 4th
are among the last remaining areas where such a strategy has any hope for
increasing black representation. If black interests are to be better
represented in Congress, racial gerrymandering is not the way.
PUTTING COLOR BEFORE SUBSTANCE
Most people would agree that African Americans lost substantive representation
in 1994: The new Republican Congress represents their interests less than the
previous Democratic one even though the new Congress has more black members.
What went wrong? One answer is that the strategy to enhance minority
representation through racial gerrymandering had the unintended
consequence-unintended, that is, by most voting-rights advocates-of increasing
It was clearly the intention of the architects of the minority districts to
give greater voting power to both African Americans and Latinos, two
predominantly Democratic groups. Indeed, 13 blacks and 5 Hispanics were elected
in the 18 newly created minority districts in 1992. The newly elected blacks,
all Democrats, were reelected in 1994, but other members of their party did not
fare as well. The Democrats' loss of 52 House seats in 1994 gave the
Republicans 12 more than they needed for control. Race-conscious redistricting,
the evidence suggests, cost the Democrats enough seats to shift the balance of
power in the House. By concentrating liberal voting strength in a few minority
districts with supermajorities of Democratic voters, Democratic candidates in
nearby districts were deprived of allies in their contests with more
Moreover, some white Democrats at the state and local level lost because
minority voters failed to turn out for the general elections in districts where
congressional black incumbents had no serious competition. In several
congressional districts, Republicans declined even to run candidates against
black incumbents. Since the elections in these districts were not actively
contested, some black voters stayed home and failed to cast votes for white
Democratic candidates running for other offices.
Some critics have disputed this analysis. Soon after the election, the Legal
Defense Fund (LDF) of the NAACP issued a detailed analysis of what was then
thought to be a Democratic loss of 54 seats (later narrowed to 52 after a
couple of cliff-hangers were resolved). That analysis showed that Republicans
captured 24 seats in states where there were no nonwhite-majority districts and
15 seats in white-majority districts surrounded by other white- majority
districts. Of the remaining 15 districts, 8 gained minority voters and 6
remained the same. According to the LDF report, far from impeding the
re-election rate of white Democrats in the South, race-conscious districting
helped save Democrats in such states as Mississippi and Georgia. The report
concludes that Democrats lost seats for the simplest of reasons: A majority of
white voters shifted to the Republican Party.
But the LDF report fails to provide a satisfactory account of such states as
Georgia, where two black-majority districts were added to the one that
previously existed. The Georgia plan was largely designed to unseat Newt
Gingrich by obliterating his old district and forcing him to move his
residence. As it turned out, race-conscious redistricting gave him a safer
Republican constituency, cutting black voters from 14 percent of his district
in 1990 (when he won by only 974 votes) to 6 percent in 1992 and after.
The dismemberment of Gingrich's former district contributed directly to the
defeat of 12-term Democrat Richard Ray, and redistricting led three other white
Democrats to retire. Since redistricting, a nine-to-one seat Democratic
advantage has turned into a seven-to-three Republican advantage (with
Republicans picking up one seat when white Democrat Nathan Deal switched
parties). Now Georgia's only Democrats in the House are blacks representing
districts where the voting-age population is over 57 percent black.
North Carolina, which created two black majority congressional districts, is
another case that illustrates how redistricting backfired. Although its six
Democratic incumbents survived the 1992 elections, they were decimated in 1994
when Democrats lost two incumbents and three open seats. Before redistricting,
North Carolina Democrats held an eight-to-four advantage; after 1994 the
Republicans had a seven-to-four advantage. Two of the state's four Democrats
are black, and one of the white Democrats, Charlie Rose, was barely reelected.
The time may come when southern officeholders primarily consist of black
Democrats and white Republicans.
North Carolina's second district was the one most directly affected by the
concentration of black voters in nearby districts. Before redistricting, blacks
made up 37 percent of the voting-age population; after redistricting, they
constituted only 20 percent. Tim Valentine, the six-term Democratic incumbent,
retired after his re-election margin dropped from 75 percent in 1990 to 54
percent in 1992. His Republican successor David Funderburk, a former U.S.
ambassador to Romania, won the district with 56 percent of the vote. Commenting
on Funderburk's qualifications, Valentine said, "He was an attractive
candidate, a smart, articulate man who had written several books. He's also
probably to the right of Jesse Helms."
Other Democrats whose losses were related to redistricting include Joan Kelley
Horn of Missouri, who was barely elected in 1990 and then defeated in 1992
after losing more than 8,000 black voters to the district of a 13-term black
Democrat, Bill Clay. Alabama's five-term Ben Erdreich, Maryland's three-term
Tom McMillen, and Louisiana's ten-term Jerry Huckaby are among the other
casualties of redistricting.
These results should scarcely be surprising. After all, the coalition to
racialize voting districts included not only blacks and Hispanics, but also
Republicans. Why should a party otherwise opposed to affirmative action have
advocated quotas in the electoral system by supporting specially drawn racial
districts that would surely elect Democrats? Could it be that the Republicans
knew something about the effect of concentrating their opponents' strength in a
few nonwhite-majority districts that escaped less discerning analysts?
Defending the strategy of race-conscious redistricting, the Reverend Jesse
Jackson declared, "These new districts are beneficial because they've made the
U.S. Congress look more like America. It's white, it's black, it's Hispanic,
it's Asian, it's Native American, it's male, and it's female." And "it's also
Republican," as Steven Holmes of the New York Times pointed out after
Racial districting has had an impact not only on the makeup of Congress, but on
the disposition of white representatives after black voters were stripped from
their districts. In a study of the voting patterns of the white Democrats in
the last Congress who had lost black voters through redistricting, political
scientists L. Marvin Overby and Kenneth Cosgrove found that they became more
conservative and less supportive of policies preferred by African Americans.
Although a number of analysts had predicted that the black and Hispanic
empowerment strategy would backfire, voting-rights activists and minority-group
leaders, almost all Democrats, forged ahead with their unholy alliance with the
Republicans. The upshot was that black voters lost power and influence. Black
politicians gained safer seats in a hostile Congress where many now consider
themselves under siege. With the Republican capture of the House of
Representatives, all but two of the African American representatives in
Congress have become minority members of the minority party. African Americans
lost 3 chairmanships of full committees and 17 chairmanships of subcommittees
as well as other important leadership posts.
THE REPUBLICAN AGENDA
AND THE BLACK CAUCUS
Blacks in America are bound to suffer in the new political milieu of the
mid-1990s, as Republicans advance their ambitious agenda to eliminate
affirmative action, curtail social programs such as free school lunches, and
reduce taxes. The Democratic Party has traditionally represented the policy
preferences of African Americans much more effectively than have the
Republicans, and the power of the Congressional Black Caucus depends on
During the last Congress, the Black Caucus became a major player in shaping the
budget, the crime bill, the space program (which passed by a single vote), and
other legislation. Caucus members were prominent in debates on health care,
NAFTA, the ban on assault weapons, welfare reform, and environmental policy.
The caucus provided the margin of victory on 16 of 87 key votes during the
first session of the last Congress.
In the Republican Congress, caucus members represent 19 percent of the
Democratic membership (an increase of 4 percent over the 103rd), but the change
in party power has effectively marginalized them. One of Newt Gingrich's first
acts as Speaker was to eliminate funds for 28 legislative caucuses, including
the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The
Republican also abolished three standing committees, two of which, the Post
Office and Civil Service Committee, and the District of Columbia Committee, had
many black members. (During the last Congress, blacks constituted 47 percent of
the Democratic membership of the Post Office Committee and 62 percent of the
District of Columbia Committee.)
The Republican decision to reduce the size of all standing committees meant
that under seniority rules, the most junior Democrats lost their assignments on
the more prestigious committees. Blacks and Hispanics who had been in Congress
for less than two terms were disproportionately affected. Carrie Meeks of
Florida, with the lowest seniority, lost her place on the Appropriations
Committee. Mel Reynolds and Cleo Fields lost their seats on Ways and Means.
Bobby Rush of Illinois lost his seats on Banking and Financial Services and on
the Science Committee. Before the 1994 elections, blacks were represented on
all standing committees except Natural Resources. Ron Dellums of California
chaired the Armed Services Committee, John Conyers of Michigan chaired
Government Operations, and Bill Clay of Missouri chaired the Post Office and
Civil Service Committee. (Clay had also been in line to chair the important
Education and Labor Committee.) After the 1994 election, blacks lost all these
positions and many others as well.
The resurgent Republicans also eliminated more than 600 committee staff jobs,
many of which were held by blacks. Hundreds of personal staffers of defeated
Democrats lost their jobs; many of these too were black, since Democrats in
recent years have often reached out to hire more blacks.
The Congressional Black Caucus must bear some responsibility for what has
happened. Bolstered by its increased size during the 103rd Congress, the caucus
under Chairman Kweisi Mfume of Maryland took highly publicized aggressive
stances against President Clinton and the Democratic congressional leadership.
Caucus members publicly chastised the president over such issues as the
withdrawal of Lani Guinier's nomination as head of the Civil Rights Division of
the Justice Department, the racial justice provisions of the crime bill, and
U.S. policy toward Haiti. Perhaps because caucus members often represent
poorer-than-average congressional districts, they fought vigorously against
provisions to ban contributions from political action committees, a key element
of campaign reform.
A combination of factors, including the group's larger size, its
aggressiveness, and the increased media attention paid to race-conscious
districting, worked in concert to ensure that the caucus received more press
coverage than ever before. On more than one occasion President Clinton was
portrayed as kowtowing to the caucus's demands. The CBS show 60 Minutes,
for instance, portrayed the caucus as goading President Clinton to intervene
militarily in Haiti to restore power to exiled president Jean-Bertrand
Aristide. Although some caucus members opposed the invasion, the segment
suggested the group was a monolithic far-left power bloc with substantial
influence over the president. Conservative talk-show host John McLaughlin,
after criticizing Mfume for trying to direct the military efforts in Haiti,
referred to him as "General Mfume."
The media also focused on the conflict between the caucus and its lone
Republican member, Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut. At issue was
Franks's desire to participate fully in Black Caucus meetings and the
organization's desire to make plans without having a member of the opposition
party present. The group received still more attention when Franks threatened
to resign and had to be cajoled into staying.
But the most costly public mistake made by the group was probably its apparent
embrace of Louis Farrakhan at its annual legislative weekend, which was aired
on C-SPAN and coincidentally occurred during the historic week when Israel
signed its peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. After a
number of groups denounced the caucus's action, individual members placed the
blame on Mfume, who they said acted without their authority. Two months later
Khalid Muhammad, a disciple of Farrakhan, delivered a venomous speech at Kean
College attacking Jews, Catholics, and other groups. The ensuing public outrage
was so great that it led the Congress, for the first time in history, to pass a
resolution condemning the speech of a private citizen. Twenty caucus members
voted for the resolution, eleven voted against, four voted present, and three
failed to vote as the measure passed the House 361 to 34. Mfume later reported
that during 1994 the caucus had received thousands of racist threats and
"buckets of hate mail." A more reflective and circumspect Congressional Black
Caucus could have avoided that response.
"Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies . . . just
permanent interests," runs the Black Caucus motto. To pursue those interests,
blacks in Congress need more friends and fewer enemies. In response to
Miller, black Democrats need to reach out across partisan and racial
lines to form coalitions with those who share their values. In some cases, they
may have to work with sympathetic Republicans to craft new policies that depart
from traditional approaches to the problems that perennially affect African
Rather than constitute a disaster, the Miller ruling is good for the
Democratic Party, good for the Congressional Black Caucus, and good for the
vast majority of African Americans who need more representation of their
liberal views of policy than they need people who look like them.
Minority-group leaders have encouraged voters to confuse increased black and
brown faces in legislative assemblies with greater power and influence, but the
two are obviously not the same. African Americans can succeed politically only
when they build broader coalitions. As a result of Miller, a more
dispersed black population may enable enough Democrats to defeat Republicans to
recapture the House of Representatives. More blacks in white-dominated
districts will have a moderating influence on many Democrats and Republicans.
So rather than decrease African American representation, the Miller
decision may actually serve to increase it and to get Congress to become more
solicitous of black interests, whatever the count of black faces.
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