AMERICAN politics has produced such strange gerrymanders as the "Shoestring District" in Mississippi, the "Horseshoe District" in New York, and the "Monkey-Wrench District" in Iowa.
Now gerrymandering has thrown a monkey wrench into America's search for racial fairness.
What chaos theory is to the sciences gerrymandering is to politics. In the former, to use a cliche, the flutter of a butterfly wing in China may affect the weather in California. In the latter, changes in the way voters are herded out of a statewide mass into voting districts may affect control in the nation's capital. Hence the two-century-old struggle over shaping America's voting pools.
The Supreme Court vaulted gerrymandering back into the headlines last week by narrowly voting to undo an eccentrically carved black congressional district in Georgia. The court may thus have endangered districts in other states designed to redress past exclusion of blacks from political power. We'll know more next fall. Then the court hears cases involving a majority black district in North Carolina and a majority Hispanic district in Texas.
But still further cases may have to wend their way to the high court before we get a complete delineation of what five or more of the justices mean. When, in short, does making race a determinant of district boundaries go too far?
First, stipulate that some degree of gerrymandering is everpresent in representative democracy. For the federal house, state legislatures, and city councils (except for at-large members) districts have to be drawn. A 1964 high court decision ruled that federal districts should be substantially equal in population. Beyond that lies only the fight for political advantage. Rural legislators try to dilute city voting power. City machines try to do the opposite. Such cases historically involved white political maneuvering, often with ethnic overtones. Then came the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an attempt to mandate a proportionate representation of blacks.
Many commentators have noted that the results were two-edged. The Black Caucus rose in numbers and influence within the Democratic majority in the House (before it became the minority last November). But black voters were removed from surrounding districts to create each safely black new district. And many of those surrounding districts tumbled out of Democratic into Republican hands as a result. It was chaos theory in action. (Ironically, the seat of House Speaker Newt Gingrich could now be jeopardized if the Democrat-controlled Georgia legislature redistricts in the wake of the court's Georgia ruling.)
Dire warnings have been sounded about a re-segregation of politics. That's understandable, but probably exaggerated. Ultimately, we cannot believe the Supreme Court justices intend any such result. They are now split over laws aimed at making up for past racial injustice. But each works in a court emblazoned with blindfolded justice on its facade. And, while that symbol echoes the ideal of a colorblind society that Martin Luther King preached, it also demands fairness and justice. Americans can reasonably expect the justices to find a way to serve both ideals.
Certainly those weird districts connected by thin strips of highway will be a red flag. But the justices know that party affiliation, geography, and urban-rural factors will continue to sway district drawing. And they realize that fair representation for minorities also deserves a seat at the mapping table, if not the whole table. Ironically, some recognition of race is still necessary on route to Dr. King's dream of a colorblind society.