A Far Cry from Apartheid
By Laughlin McDonald
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 1-2
The recent round of congressional redistricting in the South was hailed by the minority and civil rights communities as the most successful in the nation’s history. New majority-minority districts were created in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. Each of the new districts elected a minority candidate to Congress, increasing the number of African-American members in the South from five to seventeen.
Now these new districts are under siege. Whites in five of the states—North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—have filed lawsuits claiming that majority-minority districts are a form of political apartheid and resegregation. By mid-September, as a result of these suits, federal district courts in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia had struck down congressional plans with majority black districts; a federal district court upheld the state redistricting plan in North Carolina. Because of the conflict among the decisions and the importance of the issues raised, the cases will almost certainly be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has splintered on other recent voting rights decisions.
The claims raised by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits are profoundly ahistorical. Political apartheid, with South Africa long being the preeminent example, is the total exclusion of one race from governance and the domination of that race by another. No existing congressional redistricting plan can be remotely described in such terms. To the contrary, they are designed to include minorities in political life. They are designed to promote the fullest participation of all citizenry in congressional elections.
Segregation involved, among other things, denying
black persons the right to register and vote, the right to run for office and participate in primary elections, the right to live in neighborhoods of one’s choice, the equal enjoyment of public accommodations, access to jobs, the right to serve on juries, and the right to attend public schools.
By contrast, no person living in a majority-minority congressional district is compelled by law to live there, and to live nowhere else. No person—black or white—is denied the right because of his or her race to run for office, or to vote for a candidate of his or her choice. Any analogy between existing congressional redistricting and segregation or apartheid is completely misplaced.
Legislators always make redistricting decisions based on group characteristics, including race and ethnicity. In Georgia, for example, the state created a district for the mountain counties that was 95 percent white. The state drew the district to recognize and preserve an area of predominantly white Anglo-Saxon heritage that it said had “unified interest and concerns.” No one has suggested that in doing so the state acted unconstitutionally, despite the fact that the mountain counties district is far more “segregated,” i.e. composed of residents of the same race, than is any other congressional district in the state, including the 11th, which is currently being challenged in federal court.
Majority-minority districts do not guarantee that minorities will get elected. All candidates must build coalitions and reach across racial, ethnic, economic, and other lines. But such districts do provide minorities equal opportunities to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice. That right is guaranteed to all Americans, of whatever race, by the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Taking race into account in redistricting, along with other factors, helps ensure that the process will be broadly inclusive and the Congress will be racially diverse. While white elected officials can undoubtedly represent racial minorities, our history shows that frequently they have not and that some have been the architects of our worst forms of official discrimination. Redistricting should ensure that minorities will in fact be represented in the national legislature, that their views will be heard, and that a variety of backgrounds and experience will be brought to national decision-making.
Laughlin McDonald, director of the Southern Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, writes often for Southern Changes. This editorial essay was adapted from an article for Georgia Forum, an educational organization that provides experts’ views on public issues.