"The problem here is a totalitarian uniformity, a cult-like mentality such that even allies are enemies if they fail to follow the Exact Party Line. " - Phyllis Chesler

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Get Rid Of Majority-Minority Seats

"If Barack Obama's rise teaches us anything, it ought to be this: It is insulting to voters of color and white candidates alike to cordon off specific districts as belonging to one race or another."

Get rid of majority-minority seats
BY DAVID BENKOF

Friday, August 29th 2008, 4:00 AM

Now that Sen. Barack Obama is an even-money bet to be the next President, the concept of the predominantly minority district needs to be reexamined. If districts carved out to represent blacks and Latinos retain any meaningful role in today's democracy, then every state in the country (except Hawaii and the District of Columbia) is essentially a "white district," and my preferred candidate, Sen. John McCain, would deserve an overwhelming 531-7 landslide in the Electoral College this November.

If, on the other hand, we are moved by Obama's call for the nation to transcend old racial fault lines and accept the basic principle that people's voting preferences are not to be confused with their skin color, then it's time to ask: Why are so many congressional seats still designed on that assumption?

Contrary to popular opinion, predominantly minority districts are not a result of the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, they were mandated by the Supreme Court in 1986 in Thornburgh vs. Gingles, which interpreted the Voting Rights Act to outlaw "dispersal of blacks into districts in which they constitute an ineffective minority of voters." The assumption, which has been completely valid at earlier points in American history, was that white voters would be loath to vote for a minority candidate, and special districts were necessary to ensure that people of color could be elected.

Contrary to popular opinion, predominantly minority districts are not a result of the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, they were mandated by the Supreme Court in 1986 in Thornburgh vs. Gingles, which interpreted the Voting Rights Act to outlaw "dispersal of blacks into districts in which they constitute an ineffective minority of voters." The assumption, which has been completely valid at earlier points in American history, was that white voters would be loath to vote for a minority candidate, and special districts were necessary to ensure that people of color could be elected.


Due to the Thornburgh decision, the number of majority-minority districts after the 1990 census redistricting went way up, leading to a sharp increase in the number of African-Americans and Latinos in Congress beginning in 1992.

That, for advocates, was a victory - of sorts.

But Obama's success makes it clear that most Americans believe leaders of any race can effectively represent constituents of any race. In fact, there has been electoral evidence of that fact for decades. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, more than a dozen African-American mayors like Norm Rice (Seattle), Wellington Webb (Denver) and Tom Bradley (Los Angeles) were elected in large majority-white cities. Govs. Doug Wilder (Virginia) and Deval Patrick (Massachusetts) have been elected in majority-white states.

Further, some African-American members of Congress, like Harlem's Charles Rangel and Los Angeles's Maxine Waters, were elected and reelected to majority-black seats that have evolved with changing demographics into predominantly Latino seats. In 2006, white New York City Councilman David Yassky ran a competitive race to succeed retiring African-American Congressman Major Owens for a majority-black Brooklyn seat.

Then there's Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who was recently renominated 4-to-1 over an African-American opponent in a majority-black district in Memphis. If most black voters in Memphis are happy to be represented by a Jewish white guy, what exactly is the point of black districts?

To find out, I asked another Jewish white guy who represents a majority-black district: Missouri State Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis). In addition to being a legislator representing a district that is 55% African-American, Smith is a talented political scientist at Washington University who has done research on race and politics.

"Some black scholars such as Lani Guinier and Carol Swain have noted that there are nonlegislative benefits to black representation," Smith told me. "For instance, each acknowledges the psychic benefits black voters may derive by being represented by people who look like them."

But voting rights are the very essence of our democratic system. The idea that the American government should fiddle with our voting system out of an impulse to relieve the psychic distress of one demographic group is patronizing and unnecessary. The nation's electoral system should not be involved in relieving psychic discomfort.

Smith went on: "When I ran [in 2006], there were some who said that I shouldn't aspire to represent this district. I was not deaf to the calls by some in the black political community that this should be a black seat. However, my view is that the seat should go to the person who works the hardest, knocks on the most doors in every part of the district, and espouses ideas that appeal throughout the district."

If Barack Obama's rise teaches us anything, it ought to be this: It is insulting to voters of color and white candidates alike to cordon off specific districts as belonging to one race or another.

Barring a Supreme Court decision, it will take an act of Congress amending the Voting Rights Act in order to get rid of the racial dinosaur known as the majority-minority seat. That would be legislation well worth pursuing.

Benkof is a Ph.D. student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@aol.com.

4 comments:

LadyBanana said...

I'll be glad when this election is over, it takes up too much time on the news even over here!!! lol

David Benkof said...

Goodness! It's kind of funny that you write "PLEASE DON'T STEAL MY MATERIAL. I AM HAPPY TO GIVE PERMISSION IF ASKED." but then you do the very same thing to me. You have my permission to use my article free of charge, but I would prefer to be asked first. I'm sure it was an oversight.

Lauren said...

Lady Banana, I will be glad when it's over as well IF McCain wins. Otherwise I will be holding my breathe for some time to see what happens with race relations etc...in this country. I have a lot of sadness and fearful feelings this election that I never felt before.

Lauren said...

David, Wasn't my intent. I just wanted to post your material and get others to your site...which I did link to. Thanks for giving me permission now however. :-)