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Race and Representation

Race and Representation

Although the Civil War (1861–1865) put an end to slavery, Southern whites after the war sought to maintain white supremacy. One way they did this was to keep blacks from voting. For almost 90 years, Southern states successfully excluded African Americans from voting and holding elected offices.

Race and Representation

Although the Civil War (1861–1865) put an end to slavery, Southern whites after the war sought to maintain white supremacy. One way they did this was to keep blacks from voting. For almost 90 years, Southern states successfully excluded African Americans from voting and holding elected offices.

With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, the federal government ended the years of voting discrimination in the South. The act put the federal government in charge of elections in Southern states. Blacks voted freely for the first time since Reconstruction.

African Americans could now influence Southern elections. But a clear voting pattern emerged in the South: Whites preferred white candidates and blacks preferred black candidates. With blacks in the minority, white candidates almost always won. Civil rights leaders started to argue that black voters should have a fair chance to elect their own black representatives. But how can this be done in a political system based on majority rule? Does fairness require that minority citizens be represented by minorities?

"To Elect Representatives of Their Choice"

After the Voting Rights Act, some Southern states still tried to ensure the election of whites. One way to do this was by holding "at large" elections. In an "at large" election, candidates do not run in separate districts. For example, all candidates for seats on a county board would be required to run county-wide campaigns. All the winners would then become "at large" board members representing the entire county. Since white voters were in the majority in most Southern counties, they typically elected only whites to office. Although African Americans might make up 20 or 30 percent of the voters, they did not have enough votes to elect a black candidate. Many Southern blacks became convinced that they were as unrepresented in the government as they had been in the days before the Voting Rights Act when they were denied the right to vote.

Under the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department must approve the voting procedures of states with a history of voting discrimination. Believing at-large elections to be unfair, the Justice Department ordered Southern cities, counties, and states to divide at-large districts into smaller, separate districts. The voters in each district would then elect their own representative. This assured the election of African Americans who ran for office in districts with black majorities. But state legislatures often drew district boundaries that put black voters into districts with white majorities.

In 1982, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act, which now covered Hispanic as well as African-American voters in the South. The amended law granted these voters the right "to elect representatives of their choice." At the same time, however, Congress made it clear that these groups were not entitled to proportional representation. In other words, just because blacks made up 12 percent of the U.S. population did not mean that they were guaranteed 12 percent of the seats in Congress.

During the late 1980s under the Bush Administration, the Justice Department adopted a policy of maximizing so-called "minority-majority districts." These are districts where a minority group makes up the majority of the population. Using its power under the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department encouraged the creation of these districts.

Following the 1990 census, redistricting throughout the country increased the number of African-American and Hispanic majority districts. After the 1992 elections, the number of African-American members of the House of Representatives jumped from 26 to 39. Largely as a result of new "minority-majority" districts, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia elected black congressmen for the first time since the turn of the century. Blacks, who make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, hold about 7 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives today.

But redistricting along racial lines has drawn controversy. Some argue that minorities do not necessarily need minorities to represent them. They say that creating districts based on race further divides our society by race. Two recent cases brought before the Supreme Court have challenged racial redistricting on constitutional grounds. One case is from Georgia; the other, from North Carolina.

The Georgia Case

Between 1980 and 1990, one of Georgia's 10 congressional districts had a black majority. The voters in this district elected Georgia's only black congressman. But African Americans made up 27 percent of the state's population. Some argued that they should have a chance to elect more black representatives. They said that white congressmen did not really represent their views and interests.

As a result of the 1990 census, the Georgia legislature redistricted the state into 11 congressional districts. Using its enforcement powers under the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department refused to approve any redistricting plan that did not include two new "minority-majority" districts. Finally, such a plan was approved. One of the districts connected several black urban areas with rural African Americans living 260 miles away.

In 1992, African Americans were elected in all three of Georgia's black-majority congressional districts. This amounted to 27 percent of Georgia's eleven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which equaled the percentage of blacks in the state's population. But, as in North Carolina, some white voters claimed that the new black-majority districts violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection requirement.

In June 1995, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's redistricting plan was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The court majority concluded that "race was the predominant factor' in creating at least one of the black-majority districts. In such a situation, the court decided, unless there is a strong reason ("compelling governmental interest"), states are forbidden to separate citizens into different voting districts by race just as they may not racially segregate public parks.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy blamed the Justice Department for pushing a "max-plan" that created two new black-majority districts. He declared that there was no "compelling state interest" to do this. Justice Kennedy went on to write that states engage in racial stereotyping when they assume that minority voters "think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates at the polls."

The dissenting justices in this case pointed out that voting districts for Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans had been created in the past to reflect the common interests of these ethnic groups. The dissenters also wondered just how the white voters who challenged the new black-majority districts had been harmed. [Miller v. Johnson, 115 S.Ct. 2475 (1995)]

Because of this decision, Georgia must redraw its congressional districts again, probably eliminating one and perhaps both of its new black-majority districts.

The North Carolina Case

Under pressure from the Justice Department, North Carolina created two "minority-majority" districts, each about 60-percent black. As a result, two African-American congressmen were elected in 1992, the first from North Carolina in 90 years. But some voters challenged these districts in court. They claimed that the odd-shaped districts were drawn up for solely racial purposes in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that these districts do violate the 14th Amendment unless they are "narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest."

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor declared that, "Classifications of citizens solely on the basis of race 'are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.'" Justice O"Connor further warned that corralling minorities into separate voting districts "threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters. . . ."

Writing in dissent, Justice David H. Souter observed that racial minority groups often have common interests that differ from the white majority. Therefore, he argued, state legislatures should be allowed to "take race into account in drawing up districting plans." [Shaw v. Reno, 113 S.Ct. 2816 (1993)]

The Supreme Court sent the case back to a federal court in Raleigh, North Carolina, to determine if, in fact, "a compelling governmental interest" warranted the formation of the two black-majority congressional districts. This court, to the surprise of many, agreed that the districts were justified. However, when the case returned to the Supreme Court for a final decision, the court ruled in a 5-4 majority that the North Carolina "minority-majority" districts violated the Equal Protection Clause because they were not tailored to serve "a compelling state interest."[Shaw et al. V. Hunt, Governor of North Carolina et al.(1996)]

In delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that "racial classifications are antithetical to the Fourteenth Amendment."He added that the North Carolina "minority-majority" districts "would not address the professed interest of relieving the vote dilution, much less be narrowly tailored to accomplish the goal."

Justice Stevens wrote for the dissent, noting that "while the serpentine character of District 12 may give rise to an inference that traditional districting principles were subordinated to race in determining its boundaries, it cannot fairly be said to prove that conclusion in light of the clear evidence demonstrating race-neutral explanations for the district's tortured shape."

As a result of this decision, at least one of North Carolina’s voting districts has been redrawn. Moreover, challenges to "minority-majority" districts in other Southern states are on their way to the Supreme Court. The end result could be a reduction in the number of minority representatives in Congress and at other levels of government.

For Discussion and Writing

Some people argue that it does not really matter if minority voters do not get to elect minority representatives. White representatives can do just as good a job representing the interests of minority voters. Do you agree or disagree with this argument? Why?

Do you think voting districts that intentionally separate minority voters from white voters are similar to racially segregated parks, schools, and housing? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

Drawing the Lines: Jim Lehrer interviews Stuart Taylor of "The American Lawyer" about the effect of Miller v. Johnson on race relations in the state of Georgia.

A C T I V I T Y

Representing By Race

Form small groups, follow the instruction below, and analyze the "minority-majority" voting districts that were created in North Carolina and Georgia. Prepare to share your answers and reasons with the class.

  1. Review the requirements of the Voting Rights Act amendments of 1982 described in the article.
  2. Review Shaw v. North Carolina and Shaw v. Hunt, discussed in the article.
  3. Study the facts below, then discuss and answer the question that follows.

North Carolina

Congressmen 1991-92: 12 whites

Congressmen 1993-94: 10 whites; 2 blacks (16.7% of the 12 seats)

African Americans make up 22% of the state's population.

Question: Was North Carolina justified in purposely forming two voting districts based on race? Explain your answer.

4. Review Miller v. Johnson, discussed in the article.

5. Study the facts below, then discuss and answer the question that follows.

Georgia

Congressmen 1991-92: 9 whites; 1 black (10% of the 10 seats)

Congressmen 1993-94: 8 whites; 3 blacks (27% of the 11 seats)

African Americans make up 27% of the state's population.

Question: Do you think most of Georgia's black voters should be concentrated into three voting districts giving them the opportunity to elect 27% of Georgia's congressmen? Explain your answer.