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June 13, 2010

 Racial Gerrymandering: Good or bad?

MERIDIAN — On a late Saturday afternoon in March of 2010, I visited a neighborhood barbershop to get a haircut. While waiting, the general conversation centered on the recent election of President Barack Obama as the first African-American president and why there are so few African American senators and governors. The reasons given ranged from racism and the outright refusal of “the system” to accommodate the wishes of minorities. Reluctantly, I joined the conversation and provided other factors contributing to the limited number of African American senators and governors; therefore, I am writing this article to provide clarity to this controversy.

    President Obama’s election clearly underscored the fact that the majority of white Americans (53 percent) are comfortable with a president of African-American descent. If that is true, then why is only one black in the Senate (Roland Burris)? At present, there are more than 36 African American members in the House of Representatives, not including non-voting delegates from the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. That is more than eight percent of Congress for a racial group comprising less than 15 percent of the United States population.

    The real cause of the limited number of blacks in Congress is not racism, but racial gerrymandering, in which black voters are concentrated in Congressional, and other, political subdivisions where blacks predominate (instead of designing, planning, or fashioning a district to follow national geographical and institutional boundaries). This form of gerrymandering supported by national Democrats and a few moderate Republicans has created over 39 Congressional districts that are predominately African American. To be more precise, 25 or 39 districts where blacks now have Congressional seats have outright black majority populations.

    The rule behind gerrymandering is that only “safe” predominately black districts could guarantee the election of blacks to Congress because of protracted racism among whites and Hispanic voters. NOT TRUE. Let us revisit what recently occurred in the state of Texas.

    Just last month, the city of Irving held its first city council election under a new system imposed by a federal court. A number of Hispanic activists sued the city, which is more than 38 percent Latino, arguing that Irving’s at-large system was discriminating because a Hispanic has never won a seat. The settlement involved the creation six single member districts including one drawn specifically to ensure the election of a Hispanic. What was the outcome? The newly created “Hispanic district” was won by Mike Galloway, a black candidate who easily defeated Trini Gonzalez, a Hispanic. Enough said. While manipulation of district boundaries is intended to favor minorities politically, it actually has the polar effect.

    The 39 congressional districts with black representatives contains the highest profile black elected officials in each of the 50 states. These seats become the national place from which to recruit black candidates for statewide offices. The problem is that their districts are not representative of the state as a whole because of the deliberate elimination of all those who are not traditional liberal, democratic voters. Such efforts ensure that the best-financed and most well-known black candidates will tend to project a political philosophy that resonates strongly with their district’s minority constituents; however, this excludes positions and messages capable of appealing to statewide voters as a whole. Social statisticians understand the real reason there are so few black senators and governors is that voters statewide are far more politically diverse than the constituencies of black congressional districts.

    When African-Americans are elected to the House from majority black, heavily gerrymandered congressional districts in rural areas of the South, they are unlikely to have wide appeal necessary to win stateside offices. A number of majority-minority districts also capture black voters from the surrounding congressional districts leaving white congressmen with no incentive to develop messages appealing to African American voters. This possibly explains why Republicans garner so few votes from blacks in national elections. State legislators charged with the task of redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census should create Congressional districts offering racial and cultural diversity. Therefore, all candidates will have to base their appeal upon character and what they seek to accomplish in office.

 

    Thomas Young, a Meridian native, served as instructor of Political Science at the University of Southern Minnesota, former Congressional assistant and political director for Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago, and elected 15th Ward Committeeman in Chicago, Ill., 2003-2008.

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