With roughly 80% of Alabama whites voting Republican and 90% of African-Americans voting Democrat, it’s been easy for the state’s legislative leaders to deny they had any explicitly racial intent in compressing black voters into a few electoral districts and “whitening” the neighboring districts to elect more Republicans. Districting along party lines is the prerogative of whatever party controls the process, and if citizens are voting in racial blocs, what can a loyal Republican or Democrat line-drawer do but follow that pattern — and perhaps even intensify it when “voting rights” laws facilitate the design of “majority-minority” districts to enhance non-white voters’ opportunities to elect “candidates of their choice”? That’s the gist of Alabama’s defense this week in a suit brought by the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. The Supreme Court must decide whether the line-drawers acted racially, and therefore unconstitutionally, or for purely partisan purposes. But poor leadership on both sides of this question has intensified racial polarization even when voters have tried to transcend it, even in the Deep South. The Court should rebuff line-drawers in a way that points beyond both racialism and partisanship in districting.
Anyone doubting that racism does drive southern state legislators’ partisanship need only recall how willing their predecessors were to be Democrats – and then Dixiecrats, a third party that segregationists formed when Democrat Harry Truman challenged them. Right up through the 1950’s the Republicans posed as the party of Lincoln: Richard Nixon was a card-carrying member of the NAACP, and Senator John F. Kennedy courted segregationist fellow Democrats, who abandoned the party fully only after Lyndon Johnson found the courage to push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Successors of these Democrats-turned-Republicans have now even concocted voter-identification laws that New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice believes depressed the 2014 minority turnout just enough to help some Republican win. Their racism cannot be doubted.
But, as I describe in Liberal Racism, civil-rights advocates, too, entrenched polarization in the 1980s by intensifying racial districting. Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick led some such efforts, although he would later be elected governor of Massachusetts by an overwhelmingly white electorate. Only when the Supreme Court invalidated some minority-majority congressional districts in Shaw v Reno and other cases in the mid-1990s did their black incumbents – in Texas, Georgia, and Florida — prove that blacks could win in new, majority non-black districts, discrediting some voting-rights activists’ fatalism about the persistence of racial bloc voting.