Affirmative action districts: in whose faces will they blow up

Affirmative action districts: in whose faces will they blow up

Charles S. Bullock

For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans hold most southern congressional seats. The GOP gained 16 seats in 1994 in addition to the net pick-up of 9 seats two years earlier. Among the causes is affirmative action gerrymandering. Since the full impact of redistricting is not usually felt in the first election, results from 1992 and 1994 must be considered together.

After. the 1990 Census, Republicans and African Americans united to take seats from white Democrats. A key Justice Department official was sympathetic to GOP concerns while African Americans had the legal club that forced white Democrats who controlled southern legislatures to design plans helpful to blacks and Republicans. Ironically, by amending the Voting Rights Act to facilitate minority challenges to existing electoral systems, white Democrats fashioned the weapon used against them. The consequences of the Act’s new Section dawned in a 1990 federal court finding that required legislatures to maximize majority minority districts.

Bleached Districts

The Justice Department, which has authority under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to approve southern districting plans except in Arkansas and Tennessee, worked closely with legislative black caucuses to create additional minority districts. Minorities were gathered into congressional and state legislative districts having a majority of African Americans, thereby bleaching adjacent districts. Since white southerners increasingly vote Republican, whiter districts have a higher likelihood of supporting GOP nominees.

Increases in the numbers of African-American legislators dominated the news reports about the 1992 legislative elections. Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and both Carolinas elected their first black members of Congress this century while across the South, African Americans in Congress grew by 12. Coincident with black gains, Republicans picked up three seats in Georgia and Florida and one each in Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and Texas while losing one in Louisiana. African Americans added no southern seats in 1994, but Republicans took control of the Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina delegations and added seats in Florida, Virginia and Texas.

President Clinton had exceptionally high negatives in the South in 1994 and Republicans offered a message popular with many voters, particularly white males. Republicans would have made gains even in the districts that existed prior to 1992, but affirmative action gerrymandering greatly contributed to these advances.

At the simplest level, the impact of redistricting is apparent when the number of black voters removed from a district exceeds the GOP victory margin. For example, after redistricting reduced the black population of North Carolina’s Third District by three percentage points, it narrowly went Republican in 1994. John Linder defeated a liberal Democratic woman in Georgia’s Fourth District by fewer than 2,700 votes in 1992 after the district’s black percentage plummeted from 25 to 12. All districts held by Democrats in 1991 in which redistricting reduced the black percentage by more than 10 points have now fallen to Republicans. The GOP took four of these districts in 1992 and two more in 1994.

The political world is complex, so it’s unrealistic to assume that everything else remains constant when a district’s racial composition changes. Even where the removal of blacks could not account for the vote margin, bleaching often created an environment more favorable to Republicans. Unknown numbers of incumbents have been re-elected because they did not draw a credible challenger. With increasing white support for Republicans up and down the ballot, some whitened southern districts attracted more formidable Republicans than would have emerged had the racial proportions remained unchanged. Better candidates, Democratic incumbents trying to defend their records before more conservative constituents, and perceptions that winning might be possible facilitated the GOP fund raising necessary to become competitive.

Destroyed Coalitions

Justice Department preclearance standards hobbled Democrats in yet another way. GOP success varies inversely with the percentage of blacks; Republicans rarely win when districts are 25 percent black. Therefore, had Democratic legislatures not been forced to pump up minority percentages in selected districts and instead been held to the non-retrogression standard of the past, African Americans could have been distributed so as to secure additional Democratic districts.

Political scientist Ronald Weber argues that black concentrations are often greater than necessary to elect minority candidates of choice. The evidence supports Weber. In the last two general elections, all African Americans in Congress from southern districts received at least 55 percent of the vote and all but one who faced a white opponent in the primary polled 55 percent or more of the vote when nominated in 1992.

The consequences of not increasing black percentages in white Democrats’ districts despite growing GOP strength is particularly stark in 1994 open seat contests. Republicans won every open seat in which the black percentage held constant or declined following redistricting but took only one open seat in which the black percentage rose.

Redistricting battles heightened racial tensions and threatened the biracial coalitions that have kept white Democrats in office and made Republicans the minority party. Even though Republicans were involved in drawing majority minority districts, public association of the Democratic party with affirmative action has contributed to the partisan shift among white voters.

As Republicans chip away at the protective armor of Democratic incumbency, growing white support for the GOP coupled with black voter disinterest clouds Democratic prospects for regaining seats now held by Republicans.

At the state and local level – the incubator for future federal candidates – redistricting built on earlier actions designed to increase minority representation (see “The GOP Farm Team,” March 1995, Campaigns & Elections). During the 1980s, legal challenges eliminated many multi-member districts and at-large local electoral arrangements. By 1992 few multi-member districts remained where the minority population was sufficiently concentrated and numerous to create a minority single-member district.

Mirroring the congressional experience, GOP gains have usually outpaced those of blacks in state legislative bodies after majority minority districts were created. Consider a three-person state House district in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs that was subdivided in 1992. In the first election, one of the new districts elected a black, one elected a Republican, and the third chose a white Democrat with 58 percent of the vote. Two years later, the white Democrat was re-elected, but his margin slipped to barely 100 votes and if the pattern so frequently seen in southern suburbia continues, a Republican will win this district in 1996.

Seismic Change

As dramatic as the last two elections have been, redistricting continues to emit tremors. Additional GOP gains are likely as southern Democrats retire from districts that are less than 25 percent black. Republicans and African Americans may have been equal partners in plotting to use redistricting to take white Democrats’ seats but the inequality of the payoffs is increasingly apparent.

After 1994, Republicans received handsome rewards while black Democrats were becoming an increasing numerical force within the minority party. The replacement of moderate white Democrats with conservative Republicans, even with the addition of a few African American legislative seats, bodes ill for the ability of African American legislators to find the allies they need to achieve their policy goals.

Charles Bullock is a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

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