THE Supreme Court will soon decide one of the most important voting rights cases in decades. In an ironic turn of events, the states of Louisiana and Georgia were in the Supreme Court last month defending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 against a wrong-headed attack. These are states that have been dragged into federal court many times and found guilty of drawing districts that dilute minority voting strength.
But Louisiana and Georgia recently created voting rights districts, and this late effort to recognize minority voting strength is challenged as unconstitutional. The question faced by the court: May a state draw a district in which minorities are a majority of the voters even if an oddly shaped district results? The answer should be "yes," for very good reasons.
Voting rights districts must be analyzed in the context of the political realities that cause minorities' exclusion from politics, not against an abstract ideal of "colorblindness."
Though the Voting Rights Act removed overt voting barriers, blacks were still effectively excluded from participating in government in most Southern states. Legislatures would draw only majority-white voting districts and black candidates were constantly defeated.
In my state of Louisiana, with only one exception during Reconstruction, no black candidate has ever been elected to statewide office. No black candidate has ever been elected to legislative office or Congress from a majority-white district.
In 1990, only five years ago, although Louisiana had a 30 percent black population, we had 0 black congressmen out of 8. Similarly, Virginia, which is 20 percent black, had 0 of 10. North Carolina, 22 percent black, had 0 of 11.
In the political environment where David Duke, the thinly masked Ku Klux Klan leader, received about 60 percent of Louisiana's white vote in 1990, the result of drawing only majority-white districts is not unpredictable.
Voting rights districts work to end blacks' exclusion from politics in a balanced way. They are integrated districts: My district is almost evenly split racially, about 45 percent white and 55 percent black. Minority candidates for the first time have an opportunity to get elected.
The spotlight was immediately cast on the strange shape of some of the new districts in 1992. Objections turned into litigation when the Supreme Court, in 1993, voiced concern about a district's "bizarre" shape in the case Shaw v. Reno. In that hasty opinion, the Court held that there may be a constitutional injury if racial concerns, rather than "politics," drives a legislature to draw such a district.
It is important to understand that drawing districts is a bizarre process. Politics, rather than any federal guidelines, guides redistricting, and strangely shaped districts are common.
Except that each district in a state must have about the same number of people, there are no federal rules controlling how states draw districts. There are no rules about size or shape, and most districts must be so large to meet the population requirement (about 600,000 persons) that regional unity and compactness are impossible. Legislators in the redistricting process are concerned with crafting districts to meet political goals, which often coincide with the race of voters, as well as with regions of poverty or wealth and areas where one party is dominant. Courts have long agreed that these are acceptable considerations. Demographic patterns and regional characteristics, especially those of race, will always be in the minds of legislators.
The court has been enlightened enough to recognize this, but the question is how much of a role race can play? Can a preferred degree of compactness yield to the goal of including more minority communities in a district rather than dividing them?
Opponents of voting rights districts argue that, even though other districts are not held to any federal standard of size or shape, the ideal of "colorblindness" should require a higher standard.
The Supreme Court would be making a historic mistake if it is deceived by that argument. Restricting states' freedom to draw voting rights districts would be misguided and regressive for several reasons.
First, there is no clear standard of "traditional districts" against which to measure those some see as bizarre: Every district will vary according to the concerns of the legislature. A strange shape may or may not seem justified to a federal judge - but judges should not make political decisions, such as the preferred degree of compactness.
Second, redistricting is different. Race is ordinarily a forbidden consideration because we recognize it is irrelevant to decisions about individuals, and it has historically been used to exclude and disenfranchise. But the point of redistricting is to identify common interests for purposes of representation, and race is as relevant as geography, ethnicity, religion, or industry - or even more so. Courts have long agreed that a district of any shape is acceptable if driven by "political" factors. Race should not be treated differently than other important political factors. When it is, blacks are limited by rules that do not apply to other groups.
SOME argue that a representative elected from a district with a 55 percent black constituency could ignore the interests of white voters. That is absurd. The 45 percent white population of my district gets as much attention as the 10 percent black population in most congressional districts - and probably much more.
The district of my friend Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, for example, is 10 percent black, yet no one alleges that he ignores minority voters because of their numbers. A constituency of 45 percent is commanding and can easily form coalitions.
Finally, and most important, the notion of "colorblind" politics is fiction, and there is no mystery about the outcome. Southern states with only majority-white districts are all too familiar - all-white congressional delegations and very few minorities in elected office is the result. We have been there already and we should not go back. With the benefit of historical perspective, and within the context of racially polarized politics, the notion of "colorblind" redistricting becomes transparent as a ruse.
Until racially polarized politics no longer excludes minorities, ending the practice of creating only majority-white districts is necessary and healthy.