Willful Retreat From Justice
Selwyn Carter, Director of SRC Voting Rights Programs
Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995 pp. 1-3
In this thirtieth anniversary year of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the United States Supreme Court is busily erecting new barriers to the voting rights and political representation of African Americans and other minorities.
This summer, in the name of a color-blind Constitution, the Court ruled that any use of race to prepare redistricting plans should be subject to strict scrutiny from the federal bench.
In striking down a majority-black congressional district in Georgia, in dismissing–on technical grounds–a case involving a majority-black district in Louisiana, and in agreeing to add to its calendar for the October term two redistricting cases from Texas and North Carolina, the Court has opened the door to a new round of legal challenges to minority representation. Further, by restricting the authority of the Department of Justice under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has weakened the federal protection and intervention which is indispensable for African Americans and other minorities seeking fairness and non-discrimination.
With the Miller v Johnson decision, and in other recent decisions on affirmative action, the Supreme Court majority has displayed either a profound lack of understanding of history or a calculated intent to return America to its most discriminatory past.
The five-to-four decision in Miller reminds us that we will be seeing the Reagan Revolution’s legacy on the Court for years to come. Miller is strongly at odds with the spirit and letter of the congresses which passed and amended the Voting Rights Act to ensure increased
African American participation and representation in the political system.
The need to draw “majority-minority” districts arose from a particular history. In each of the six Southern states where legal challenges have lately been mounted to majority-black congressional districts, it remains true that large numbers of white voters consistently do not vote for African American or other minority candidates. Such white bloc voting has made it virtually impossible for minority candidates, however strong their qualifications and merit, to win an election in a district in which minority voters are not a majority of the electorate.
The Court’s decision has already prompted more litigation. A new lawsuit, challenging the district of Nydia Valasquez in New York City, was filled on June 28 by the “Campaign for a Color-Blind Society,” a group linked to the challenges in Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. These court cases are part of a pernicious, organized strategy by those who have never supported the Votings Rights Act. They have used the constitutional amendment passed to enfranchise African Americans as the basis to dismantle black representation.
Despite the election of mayor Ron Kirk in Dallas, Texas, former Governor Douglas Wilder in Virginia, Representative Gary Franks in Connecticut, and a sprinkling of other African Americans across the nation who have won office with white support, the significant increases in black office-holding over the past fifteen years are due primarily to the conscious creation of single-member districts in which black voters are in the majority, and not
to white support of African American candidates. This is true for African Americans elected to Congress, state legislative bodies, county commissions, city councils, and school boards. Are we now to say that only those African Americans who are the candidates of choice of white voters have a right to hold office?
If minority voters, like their white counterparts, are to have the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice, then we must support the conscious drawing of districts in which minorities are a majority. In the area of voting rights, support for the principle of fairness and non-discrimination means support for the specific remedy which has ended apartheid in political representation and brought increased diversity and democracy to the South.
During the Reconstruction period the counting of African American ex-slaves for the purposes of apportionment added fifteen additional congressional seats to the House of Representatives. Yet, from 1901 to 1971, not a single African American was elected to the House from the South.
In the recently published Quiet Revolution in the South: the Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 (reviewed in this issue of Southern Changes) editors Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman remind us that “the Voting Rights Act must be seen as a mechanism to ensure that the second Reconstruction of the 1960s did not meet the same fate as that of the first Reconstruction of the 1860s and 1870s.” It took the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to enable African Americans to realize rights which had been granted by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment nearly a century earlier.
The dilemma facing African Americans and other minorities today is that while many white Americans continue to express support for the broad principle of racial fairness, they continue to resist the specific and practical steps necessary to achieve an equal and non-discriminatory society.
For the Court to rule in 1995 that race-conscious redistricting violates the principle of a color-blind constitution is to ignore what has been a bitter reality for African Americans since the three-fifths clause was written into the Constitution–neither the Constitution nor the society has ever been color-blind. Despite a civil war, a civil rights movement, several civil rights acts, a voting rights act, amendments to the Constitution, and decades of litigation, race is still as central an issue in American life as it was when the nation was founded. Race-based remedies are a necessary means of redressing historical racial oppression and discrimination in the pursuit of justice.