Redistricting Without Regard to Race

The Supreme Court's Decision Will Help Blacks and the Democratic Agenda

The Supreme Court decided last week that the use of race as a "predominant factor" in drawing congressional districts is unconstitutional, a decision that could erase may of the gains that Blacks have made in Congress. The Court's decision has been widely criticized by Blacks who say it represents a possible attack on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which led to enhancements of Blacks' right to vote. But the Court's decision--whether it is in itself the right one--is good because it should benefit Blacks in the long run by allowing them to achieve more of their policy goals in the U.S. Congress.

Racial redistricting and the creation of majority-Black Congressional districts actually hurt the Blacks that it is supposed to help, by increasing the number of Republicans elected to Congress and thus decreasing Blacks' influence on the political process. The Court's ruling will have the unusual effect of helping those who are now complaining bitterly about the decision. Blacks over-whelmingly identify with the Democratic party, and the increasing number of Republicans in Congress hurts Blacks' chances to implement their policy goals.

According to a widely cited 1988 poll by the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, 72 percent of Blacks said they identified with the Democratic party, and 10 percent said they were independents leaning toward the Democratic party, while only seven percent of Blacks said they identified with the Republican party and two percent said they leaned toward the Republican party. More recent studies have also shown that as a group, Blacks are much more liberal and supportive of the Democratic party than whites. The New York Times reported after the 1994 elections that 89 percent of Blacks voted Democratic in the 1992 elections to the House of Representatives and 88 percent in 1994.

Thus, the majority-Black congressional districts created under racial redistricting tend to be over-whelmingly Democratic. All 17 majority-Black districts in the South are currently held by Black Democrats.

Those who say the Court's decision will hurt Blacks are right in that ending racial redistricting will likely slow the rate of increase of Blacks in Congress or even unseat some Blacks from Congress as racial redistricting has undoubtedly led to increases in the number of Blacks in Congress.


Between 1969 and 1969 and 1973, the number of Blacks in Congress increased from 10 to 17 after the creation of majority-Black districts following the 1970 census. In the first election following redistricting as a result of the 1980 census, the number of Black representatives in Congress increased from 17 in 1981 to 20 in 1983. There are now 40 Blacks in Congress--39 in the House, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting member representing the District of Columbia, and one senatior, Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat from Illinois. All but one of these Black representatives are Democrats.

Racial redistricting has thus brought more Blacks into Congress, where they can fight for policy initiatives which will benefit their Black constituents and the black community. Having more Blacks in Congress in also good because they can serve as role models for their community and for the nation.

But racial redistricting has not been completely benefictial to Blacks. Redistricting also has the effect of electing more Republicans in place of moderate Democrats, particulary in the South, where most of the majority-Black districts have been created.

Shifting Black voters into majority-Black districts leaves more whites, who are usually more conservative than Blacks, in adjoining districts that are susceptible to Republican votes. Because Republicans are generally not as sympathetic as moderate Democrats to Blacks' political and social goals, Blacks are hurting their cause by allowing Republicans to replace moderate Democrats in legislatures.

Although Blacks can use their greater numbers to fight for their policy goals in legislatures, the replacement of moderate Democrats with Republicans means that Blacks could have fewer allies in the legislatures. In addition, the legislators in the districts adjoining majority-Black districts have fewer Black constituents and thus will not represent Black interests.

Even moderate white Democrats have become increasingly conservative because of the removal of Black constituents from their districts. J. Roy Rowland, a moderate white Democrat, represented the Eighth District in Georgia from 1982 to 1994. During the 1992 redistricting, the number of Blacks in his district dropped from 36 to 21 percent, which he said had influenced his voting record.

"It became more oriented toward a district that had changed," Rowland said in newspaper reports following his retirement last year. "I didn't vote for the Clinton budget, and I might have been inclined to do so in the past." Rowland retired last year, and he said the whole process of redistricting disgusted him. "Am I not capable of representing Black people?," he asked "I find personally offensive that this took place."

As a result of the increase in Republicans in Congress, Blacks are getting less and less support from others in the legislature and their current political influence will continue to decline. As Charles S/ Burlock III, a professor at the University of Georga, wrote in a paper, "If Democrats do not regain control of Congress, African American legislators will have become marginalized as a minority within the minority party...If southern state Democratic parties become riven between liberal Black and conservative white factions, the prospects for Republican victories up and down the ticket will be enhanced."

On the whole, racial redistricting has undercut aggregate support for policies favored by Blacks on the floor of the House by concentrating voting strength in a few majority-Black districts. Moreover, the replacement of moderate Democrats by conservative Republicans and the shift to the right of other Democrats representing districts with white majorities has also decreased support for Black political goals.

BlacKs today have a dilemma: Should they try to fight for majority-Black districts to elect significant numbers of Blacks to Congress in order to fight for their political goals, knowing that the majority-Black districts lead to an overall conservative shift?

Or should Blacks sacrifice the idea of electing Black representatives who are guaranteed to be highly responsive to their interests in order to give control of Congress back to moderate white Democrats who are more sympathetic than conservative Democrats and Republicans to Black political goals?

The answer to that question lies in whether white representatives can effectively represent Black constituents. To say, as some Blacks do, that whites cannot represent Blacks in Congress is sheer folly. Maybe they don't represent Blacks as well as other Blacks do, but to say that all Blacks share common interests is also flawed. Thus, there is no one Black interest that only a Black legislator can represent.

The Court has taken a bold step in declaring unconstitutional districts drawn based predominantly on race, and it looks as though Blacks will be better off in the long run.