DISASTER, any right-thinking civil rights activist could have told you before November 5, was looming.
The Supreme Court had been making it increasingly clear that gerrymandering congressional districts along racial lines was not only a perversion of the Voting Rights Act but a violation of the Constitution. In Shaw v. Reno (1993), Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had written that when boundaries are sent twisting and looping all over the map just to ensure that a majority of a district's residents are black, "it reinforces racial stereotypes and threatens to undermine our system of representative democracy." The whole business, the court had held, "bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid."
Two years later, in Miller v. Johnson, the justices had pulled the plug on Georgia's 11th Congressional District, a cartographical contortion designed to herd together every African-American between Atlanta and Savannah. "When the state assigns voters on the basis of race," Justice Anthony Kennedy had written for the court, "it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that voters of a particular race, because of their race, think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates."
Other cases had followed. Majority-black districts in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas were ordered redrawn. The elaborate gerrymandering in which the civil rights establishment had placed so much stock was being dismantled. Now an election was approaching, and hysteria was in the air.
The Supreme Court's rulings, shrieked Penda Hair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had "the potential to wipe out the Congressional Black Caucus." Her colleague Theodore Shaw warned that without racial redistricting, so few minorities would be left in Congress that they "could meet in the back seat of a taxicab."
To Jesse Jackson, the court decisions were "a kind of ethnic cleansing." A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., a former federal judge, charged O'Connor, Kennedy, and the other justices with having "done to African-Americans in Louisiana" -- where a racial gerrymander was struck down -- "what no hooded Ku Klux Klan mobs were able to do." One black congressman, Charles Rangel of Brooklyn, declared that the court wanted to change "Congress back to an old white boys' club that it used to be."
As Election Day neared, the professional civil-rightsers warned of doom. "Today is one of the saddest days in the history of American law," wailed the NAACP's Elaine Jones in June, when four race-based districts in North Carolina and Texas were nixed. "These decisions accelerate the process of excluding persons of color from the halls of Congress." Over at the ACLU, Laughlin McDonald foresaw "a Congress that is increasingly white at a time that the nation is becoming increasingly diverse."
Yet for all the Chicken Little-ing, the sky never fell. There were 55 blacks and Hispanics in the 104th Congress; there will be 55 in the 105th. In Connecticut, a black representative was defeated (Republican Gary Franks); in Indiana, a new black representative was elected (Democrat Julia Carson). The only other change in the Congressional Black Caucus was caused by the departure of Democrat Cleo Fields, who chose to leave when his Louisiana district was redrawn.
Everywhere else, minority candidates cakewalked back into office. In Dallas, Eddie Bernice Johnson was reelected with 55 percent of the vote, even though the black population of her district -- redrawn after the courts ruled it unconstitutional -- dropped to only 44 percent. In Houston, Sheila Jackson Lee's district also went from mostly black to mostly nonblack. She cruised to reelection in a 77 percent blowout.
Even an unpleasant, far-to-the-left Democrat like Atlanta's Cynthia McKinney kept her seat. It was McKinney's district that was at issue in the Georgia case, and she was apoplectic when a judicial redesign changed it from two-thirds black to two-thirds white. Her father, a Georgia legislator, cursed her Republican opponent as a "racist Jew"; he circulated leaflets charging Jewish organizations with trying to defeat his daughter. But on Election Day, she took 58 percent of the vote.
The claim that African-Americans can win elections only in safely black districts was always idiotic. Not only was it racist, premised as it was on the notion of white "block voting," it was demonstrably false. The victories of Edward Brooke in Massachusetts, Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, Douglas Wilder in Virginia, and Ken Blackwell in Ohio had proved repeatedly that effective black candidates could beat white opponents in statewide races. Likewise all the black mayors elected in largely white cities -- New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis.
But to racial obsessives like Higginbotham and Jackson and the NAACP Legal Defense lawyers, it will always be 1955. White voters will always be racist. African-American candidates will always be hobbled. The Congressional Black Caucus will always be too weak to survive without special districts tailored for easy reelection.
Happily, the rest of America has grown up. Most of us see ourselves as more than just a color, and we are less likely than ever to judge a politician by his skin.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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