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Civil rights leaders say the Supreme Court has "crippled" civil rights. But could the loss of minority districts ease the polarization of American politics?

Published June 14, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The Supreme Court leveled another major blow against minority representation in Congress when it ruled Thursday that four congressional districts in North Carolina and Texas, gerrymandered to assist the election of black and Hispanic candidates, were unconstitutional.

The 5-4 rulings hardened the Supreme Court's position against these provisions of the Voting Rights Act, first enunciated last year when it struck down a specially drawn district in Georgia, represented by Democratic Rep. Cynthia Kinney. Currently, there are 40 blacks and 19 Hispanics in Congress, and most political observers expect their numbers to be reduced because of the Supreme Court decisions.

"The inevitable consequence of the court's action will be to produce a Congress that is increasingly white at a time that the nation is becoming increasingly diverse," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern regional office in Atlanta. McDonald, quoted in today's Los Angeles Times, said the rulings "will further cripple one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation that this country has ever enacted."

Are the implications really that bad? How big a setback are the rulings to minority representation in politics, and what might happen next? We talked to Thomas Byrne Edsall, a political reporter for The Washington Post, and co-author, with Mary D. Edsall, of "Chain Reaction: Race, Rights, and Taxes in American Politics" (1992).

Who are the real losers in these rulings?

Eight congressional districts have now been successfully challenged. Four others, all Democratic, that might be described as having "odd shapes" -- which seems to be the criterion for challenging them -- are probably on the target list: Nydia Velazquez in New York, Robert Scott in Virginia, Luis Guttierez in Illinois and Alcee Hastings in Florida. By the year 2000, if these rulings hold, I expect there will be no districts left that were specifically drawn up to aid the election of black or Hispanic representatives.

The losses will be mainly in the South, where most of these districts were drawn. David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, was quoted as saying, "It's not like the black membership of
Congress is going to be going from 40 to zero."

The real losers are going to be black representatives in these regions who have large black majorities and have campaigned very strongly as "black representatives." For example, Cleo Fields in Louisiana and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia. The rulings will make for a radical change in the way they will have to campaign from now on. That will be tough. It means changing an image from being an active, strong proponent of civil rights, of being primarily a "representative of the black community." But that is a legitimate function of democracy -- you've got all kinds of representatives for legitimate groups.

How might this play out electorally? Presumably it gives the Republicans an even stronger lock on the South.

That's less clear. These districts resulted from an odd alliance of Republicans and civil rights groups, both seeking to promote their interests. Minorities almost doubled their ranks in Congress. Republicans saw the opportunity to concentrate black votes all in one area, which increased their chance of winning in surrounding areas. And they were successful in 1992 and 1994 in doing just that.

But there is an argument that the Democratic party could benefit from these rulings by spreading minorities out and increasing the Democratic base in a number of competitive districts in the South. Except that those districts are now more likely to elect a white representative. It's going to be a brutal process, pitting Democrats against Democrats in life-and-death struggles when these districts are redrawn to comply with the rulings. And the Democrats have already lost so much ground that their chance to catch back up may be lost anyway.

Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote Thursday's decisions, did leave the door open -- very slightly -- for retaining "majority-minority" districts if they represented a more compact minority community.

This decision is not fixed in stone for a more important reason: Bill Clinton could win re-election. (Chief Justice) Rehnquist, among others, is talked about as a prospective retiree, and with one vote, you could reverse this whole policy. Clinton's appointees are all against this decision and presumably a new Clinton appointee would follow that pattern.

In the meantime, what options do blacks have in the political process in light of these rulings?

They have a number of options. I would argue that there is a growing willingness among whites to vote for black and Hispanic candidates. You see this in a number of local races where blacks are winning in white majority districts. Jacksonville, Fla., which is 70 percent white, voted for George Wallace in 1968 and Reagan through the '80s. It recently voted for a tough-minded black Democrat for sheriff against a number of prominent whites. He ran specifically opposing quotas in the hiring in the sheriff's department. Mayor Michael White in Cleveland, a racially divided city, wins re-election virtually without opposition. He's very tough-minded on crime, tough on city spending, and is very popular in the white suburbs. Norman Rice, the mayor of Seattle, has said he would like to end busing; he also wants to regulate the behavior of street people. So a minority candidate willing to defy certain liberal orthodoxies can do very well.

So the rulings may not be quite the all-encompassing tragedy for civil rights.

No. In fact you could argue that it might accelerate the integration of American politics. It could; I'm not saying it would. There will be a strong feeling in minority communities of being betrayed, that a promise has been broken, by the Supreme Court, by the legal system, and the loss of what was felt to be a constitutional right. We'll have to wait and see. But it could lessen the racial polarization in politics.

Quote of the day

The real thing?

"It now appears, at the very least, we may finally have the tools to turn (AIDS) into a long-term manageable and treatable disease, much like hypertension and diabetes. Almost every one of my patients is doing significantly better."

-- Roy Gullick, research physician at New York University's medical school, on a new combination of drugs called 'Protease Inhibitors' used to treat the AIDS virus.

"I'm excited. I feel strong. I feel hopeful. I feel normal again."

-- Eduardo Torreau, 39-year-old former dancer, who has been taking the drugs for 20 months.
(From "New Drug 'Cocktails' Mark Exciting Turn In the War on AIDS," in Friday's Wall Street Journal.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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