The Future of Black Representation

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 to respect."

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.




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 re-election bids.

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.


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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 Republican strength.

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 conservative Republicans.

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 the election.

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.




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 Democratic control.

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 Americans.

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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