When A Black Face Turns Away White Votes…
By Keith Reeves
Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 6-7
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s flawed but significant rulings on race-based districting, two central questions remain: What happens when a black face turns away white votes and can blacks be elected from settings where whites comprise a majority of the population? With the Court’s developing jurisprudence of racial gerrymandering, racial pluralism in Congress has been dealt a signifcant blow.
In the entire checkered history of this country, only nine blacks have ever won election to the U.S. Congress from election districts where whites were overwhelmingly in the majority. Following the 1990 reapportionment, black congresspersons were elected from Florida for the first time ever, and from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia for the first time in more than a century.
One of those riding the crest of political change in 1992 was Louisiana’s Cleo Fields, the twenty-nine year-old state senator from Baton Rouge. With prodding from the Department of Justice, the state legislature interpreted the 1982 proviso to the Voting Rights Act to mean that “where a majority-black district could be created, one must be created.” Thus, to gain approval of its reapportionment plan, it carved out the district from which Fields was elected. Of seven congressional districts, Louisiana now had two that were predominantly black-the Second and the Fourth. William Jefferson’s geographically compact Second District in the New Orleans region was relatively easy to configure(see map). By stark contrast, Field’s widely dispersed district, the “‘Z’ with drips” district stretched from the northwestern city of Shreveport to his home base of Baton Rouge.
But the Justice Department’s policy of creating majority-black districts met with fierce criticism. Disputants charged that the districts convey the impression that voters were segregated on the basis of race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, intentional racially configured voting districts, they alleged, “raise the specter of racial quotas, deepening racial and ethnic cleavages, and minority political ghettos.” “These districts are reserved for black candidates; no white candidates need apply,” one detractor argued. Besides wrote another, “[r]ace relations suffer when ‘electoral remedies’ favor one racial group.”
Such sentiments resonated with the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled in 1993 (in ) that the shape of two majority-black congressional districts in North Carolina were suspiciously race-driven and subordinated traditional districting practices such as geographical compactness and contiguity, in particular. The five-member conservative plurality, speaking through Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, reasoned: “So bizarre on its face” were the districts that it “rationally cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to segregate citizens into separate voting districts on the basis of race.”
Indeed, O’Connor maintained that North Carolina’s majority-black First and Twelfth districts resembled “the most egregious racial gerrymanders of the past” and, accordingly, violated the constitutional rights of all voters to participate in a “color-blind” electoral process. That said, North Carolina would have to demonstrate that its reapportionment plan was not drawn for an expressly racial purpose or, if so, that the plan was “narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest.” Contorted majority-black electoral districts in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, all drawn after the 1990 census, were now open to legal challenge by disaffected whites.
Meanwhile, the Court plurality applied its reasoning in Shaw v. Reno two years later, when it invalidated Georgia’s majority-black Eleventh District, represented by Cynthia McKinney, the state’s first black congresswoman. The Court concluded that the state legislature’s emphasis on race when it drew the boundary lines was “predominant” and thus unconstitutional.
Like it or not, a great many of us are left to contemplate the profound and vast implications of the Court’s evisceration of race-based legislative districting. Justice John Paul Stevens grasped the dire, if not muddled, ramifications of the Court’s rulings. In poignant, pointed language, he epitomized the concerns of many: “The decisions issued…serve merely to reinforce my conviction that the Court has…struck out into a jurisprudential wilderness that…threatens to create harms more significant than any suffered by the individual plaintiffs challenging these districts….I cannot profess to know how the Court’s developing jurisprudence of
racial gerrymandering will alter the political and racial landscape in this Nation-although it certainly will alter that landscape.”
As Steven Holmes of The New York Times put it, “[T]he country will soon have to face a practical question that all those legislative contortions were intended to avoid: Will whites vote for black candidates?”
For the last several years, white and black Americans across the country have been engaged in polemic and contentious discussions about the perils of affirmative action. And, in some critics’ minds, majority-black districting amounts to “affirmative action in the voting booth.” This is a simplistic and trivial characterization of both the nature and extent of the problem. Race remains this country’s deepest and most enduring division. Racial discrimination was the problem in the 1965 campaign for voting rights, and even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act that year, it remains so today.
The presumption was that stringent enforcement of this law would remedy the problem of black voters’ disfranchisement. And to a great extent, the legislation has. But thirty years after the passage of the act, an intractable problem remains that neither Congress, state legislatures nor the courts can ignore the prevalence of racial bloc voting on the part of whites.
To date, virtually all of the electoral data on the prevalence of racial bloc voting has been in the aggregate registration and turnout figures. This information does not enable us to understand why citizens vote as they do.
To ascertain whether whites’ political choices are motivated by racial animus, for example, I conducted a biracial campaign study experiment. Approximately 110 white respondents in the study were asked to read one of two news stories that described a hotly contested and racially polarized election campaign between two mayoral candidates. One group of respondents was given a news story about two white candidates while the other group was given the same story, only in this case the race of the two candidates was changed, one candidate was black, the other white.
A research investigation of this kind is significant for the following reasons. First, the study provides direct information about the motivations and sentiments underlying white voting behavior toward a black office-seeker. For instance, respondents were queried about their: (1) racial attitudes; (2) evaluation of the candidates; and (3) vote choices “if the election were held today.” Second, the fact that many voting-rights disputes cover small jurisdictions or past events means that individual-level survey instruments for these cases are usually not available and cannot be constructed. This experimental campaign study enables us to peer inside the privacy of the ballot box. Third and most important, if it can be shown that whites’ limited receptivity toward a black office-seeker is due to racial animus independent of political orientation, qualifications, and experience, age, reputation, or some other personal attribute is an affirmative remedy not warranted?
Thus, several striking conclusions emerge from this biracial election campaign study. First, the study showed conclusively that those whites who read the news story of the contest between the black and white candidate were reluctant to vote for that black candidate despite the fact that he possessed identical credentials, political experience, and personal characteristics as his white counterpart depicted in the other news story. Furthermore, the study found that in a racially polarized political campaign, whites’ aversion to voting for a black candidate is associated with their attitudes, opinions, and stereotypes of black Americans as a categorical group. A black candidate seeking the support of white voters is evaluated accordingly. Such racial bias unfairly burdens black candidates who ought to have an equal opportunity to compete for elected office on the basis of their qualifications, experience, issue stances and personal character.
Racial bloc voting on the part of whites perniciously stacks the electoral deck against any black candidate, particularly in circumstances in which that candidate competes against a white opponent. One must ponder what it says about our society that thirty years after the tumultuous campaigns of the 1960s, a black American who runs for office is not afforded an equal opportunity to compete for white votes.
Americans of all political and ideological stripes must acknowledge racial bloc voting for what it is a formidable barrier to aspiring black political candidates. Until racial bloc voting diminishes, black-majority congressional districts are one appropriate and necessary means of ensuring that black candidates are afforded an equal opportunity to compete for, not win, office. This is not a special privilege. Rather, it is a remedy to level the political playing field. And although five redistricted black members of Congress were returned to office in 1996, it is beyond dispute that race loomed large in those elections.
The merits of majority-minority districting ought to be evaluated from the vantage point of bringing real meaning to notions of equal opportunity and racial pluralism. As the Supreme Court continues its wade into the “jurisprudential wilderness of racial gerrymandering,” it is imperative that the justices affirm these fundamental concepts. To do so, they must come to grips with the fact, however dispiriting, that racial bias still plays a role in the voting booth.
Keith Reeves is an associate professor of public policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was an expert witness in Hays v. Louisiana, III, a federal court challenge to the creation of Louisiana’s Fourth majority-black congressional district.