IN the years following the post-Civil War Reconstruction, ``redeemers'' strongly discouraged voting by blacks. Today the attack has shifted to black districts, still the primary base of black elected officials.
Last summer in Shaw v. Reno, a suit challenging North Carolina's congressional districts, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a district so bizarrely shaped as to have no apparent basis other than race could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A district court will shortly decide the fate of the North Carolina plan.
A district court in Louisiana recently extended the Shaw doctrine in a decision striking down the black-majority district represented by first-term African American Rep. Cleo Fields. The Hayes v. Louisiana ruling suggested that any intentionally created minority district could be an unconstitutional ``racial gerrymander'' that would have to be justified as narrowly designed to meet a compelling state interest.
Ironically, the Hayes decision sanctions the drawing of white ethnic or religious districts no matter what their shape. Only minority districts are suspect because minorities are protected by the 14th Amendment. Thus is history inverted; an amendment crafted to empower minorities is turned to their detriment. Lawsuits have since challenged minority districts in Georgia, Florida, and Texas.
The critique of minority districts, whether in courts of law or public opinion, rests on several misconceptions. First, many minority districts (for Congress and other offices) are no more oddly shaped than white districts, and some of the nation's most bizarre districts were crafted to protect white incumbents. Only after redistricting had begun to provide opportunities for minority voters did federal courts become concerned with the shape of districts.
Second, oddly shaped districts may unite communities of interest on a basis other than race. The challenged Louisiana and North Carolina districts combine low-income blacks and whites who had previously been scattered in more affluent districts. A survey conducted for the Shaw litigation shows that blacks and whites in the challenged districts have more in common with one another ideologically than blacks and whites in the most geographically compact district in the state. Despite the usually wide racial differences in opinion, the survey shows that whites in the challenged districts are about as compatible ideologically with blacks in the districts as with whites.
Third, despite comparisons to ``apartheid'' practices or ``balkanization,'' the districts now challenged as racial gerrymanders are among the most racially mixed in the nation. The North Carolina district that engendered the Shaw decision is only 53 percent black in voting age population.
Fourth, minority districts do not promote racially polarized voting. Rather, such districts are remedies for a preexisting white-bloc vote that denies minorities the chance to elect candidates of their choice. Prior to the creation of minority districts, no Southern state had elected a black member of Congress in the 20th century. Nationwide, blacks now constitute fewer than 10 percent of US House members and only 1 percent of Senate members.
By showing that minorities can represent both minorities and whites, the election of minority officials has diminished racial divisions. The North Carolina survey shows that white constituents are about as likely to contact a black as a white member of Congress. Minority officials elected with token white votes have gained considerable white support in reelection campaigns.
The argument over racial gerrymandering is being manipulated for political ends. In the hope of draining Democratic votes from neighboring districts, the Republican Party supported the creation of heavily concentrated minority districts. After this strategy failed, Republicans joined the attack on minority districts, hoping to undo plans crafted by Democratic legislatures. The Republican National Committee is an intervening plaintiff in Shaw v. Reno.
During Reconstruction, as today, critics made inroads into public opinion by professing race neutrality and conjuring fears of discrimination against whites. Then, as now, even defenders of civil rights grew weary of maintaining the vigilance needed to preserve minority rights.
The opponents of civil rights are stirring racial discord. Unless the civil rights community effectively counterattacks, there will again be diminished opportunities for racial minorities to participate in American political life. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.