Racial Gerrymandering and Idiots

Cynthia Tucker regrets her support for majority-minority districts.

Cynthia Tucker, the longtime editorial page editor for the AJC, has issued a retraction.

I won’t procrastinate. I’ll get the most difficult part of this column over right now: I was wrong. I was shortsighted, naïve and narrow-minded to endorse the concept of drawing Congressional districts to take racial demographics into account.

In 1982, the Voting Rights Act,  with its emphasis on Southern states, was amended to encourage the creation of awkwardly named “majority-minority” districts in order to give black voters the strength of a bloc. I believed that drawing such districts was a progressive political tactic, a benign form of affirmative action that would usher more black members into a Congress that had admitted only a handful.

The tactic worked. In 1980, there were only 18 blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now, there are 44, many of them elected from districts drawn to meet the mandates of the Voting Rights Act.

Unfortunately — like so many measures designed to provide redress for historic wrongs — those racially gerrymandered districts also come with a significant downside: They discourage moderation. Politicians seeking office in majority-black or -brown districts found that they could indulge in crude racial gamesmanship and left-wing histrionics.

While black-packed districts yielded some quite respectable pols — including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House — they also launched the Congressional careers of clownish legislators such as former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, last heard cozying up to the savage dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Hemming most black voters into a few districts also had a deleterious effect on surrounding areas, now “bleached” of voters whose interests tend toward equality of opportunity. Their absence encourages pols in districts left overwhelmingly white to use the “Southern strategy” of playing to the resentments of white voters still uncomfortable with decades of social change.

As Richard Harpootlian (cq), chairman of the South Carolina Democratic party, told me: “When the only issue is race, idiots win, black and white.”

Much of this was not only predictable but predicted.

I lived in Alabama’s 7th Congressional District when it redrawn in 1992 as a majority-minority district, encompassing the counties in the state’s Black Belt and the predominantly black parts of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Quite literally, I was on the wrong side of the street, with the poor and black parts of Tuscaloosa cleaved off from the affluent areas. The same was done in Birmingham.

The results were predictable and predicted: The 7th became a safe black seat and far and away the most liberal district–indeed, the only liberal district–in the state while the 6th became the whitest and most conservative. Oh, and something else: Stark differences in poverty.

Food hardship in Alabama’s congressional districts, 2010:

  • 7th Congressional district – 29.3 percent
  • 4th Congressional district – 27 percent
  • 3rd Congressional district – 25.8 percent
  • 1st Congressional district – 25.1 percent
  • 2nd Congressional district – 24.8 percent
  • 5th Congressional district – 21.2 percent
  • 6th Congressional district – 18.3 percent

But, strangely, the elections in the 7th — which, for all practical purposes, means the Democratic primary contests — weren’t over the best way to help the poor but over which candidate was the blackest. Oh, they were all African American. But, for example, the original holder of the seat, Earl Hilliard, successfully warded off his first challenge from his eventual successor, Artur Davis, by arguing that all his opponent, a US Attorney, had ever done for black folks was put them in jail. Davis tried to make the campaign over Hilliard defying sanctions against Libya and taking a junket there.  These were highly accomplished men, graduates from Howard and Harvard Law School, respectively.

While artificially created majority-minority districts have tended to produce that sort of bizarre politics, the “bleaching” effect on neighboring districts has created something almost as bad: fighting over who loves Jesus more, how big the monuments to the 10 Commandments should be, and the like.

Of course, racial gerrymandering isn’t the sole cause of this. Old fashioned gerrymandering along party lines to carve out safe seats for incumbents and/or to benefit the party that controls the state legislature the cycle after the Census can do the same thing. By removing the need to appeal to a wide range of views, politics devolves into battles over personality and minor issues, since there’s no real policy disagreement among the candidates. Either way, idiots win.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andyman says:

    I would submit that even when there are substantial policy differences, idiots are still likely to win.

  2. jwest says:

    Until we spend the billions necessary to keep Guam from tipping over, things should remain as they are.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    The other side effect is that a black majority district makes the incumbent too liberal to ever run for state wide office. Thus, the majority black congressional district becomes the highest office that black politcians can aspire to hold. That is why most of the Black Congressional Caucus has been around for so long and never tries for higher office.

    In addition, it creates the odd results such as Steve Cohen D-Tn, a white Democrat who represents a majority black district. Now in Tennessee, the highest office that any black can aspire to win is a State Senate seat.

    One of the benefits of majority black districts is that those districts show how very liberal blacks are and how blacks have zero interest in social conservative issues. The CBC is th emost liberal group in Congress because the CBC is filled with liberal blacks who represent liberal blacks.

  4. ej says:

    This is also a factor that hurts the democrats chances every election of winning the House. The median district in the country is roughly an R+2 because dems voters tend to be packed into a relatively few districts. There are a good amount of heavily dem seats that go 80% where most solid republican seats tend to be 55-60%. If the congressional vote went 50/50 nationally, that would probably translate into a 15 seat majority for republicans.

    Considering this dynamic it’s surprising more democrats dont want to do away with this system.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that 30 years ago there was a solid democratic (small d) argument to be made for creating a few gerrymandered districts. Unfortunately, once any legislation has been in place for a few years it develops a constituency for which the continuation of the statute is an existential question.

    Consider the surreal Illinois 4th Congressional District. Without its gerrymandering on steroids despite its substantial Hispanic population Chicago would have had no Hispanic congressmen. Without or without the gerrymandering that won’t be the case after the upcoming redistricting but I strongly suspect the gerrymandering will remain.

    In my view judicial review of these district should be more exacting. An actual history of violation of the voting rights of the group on whose presumed behalf the district is being created in recent history should be a requirement for its creation.

  6. Malichi Daniels says:

    It’s very interesting how Mr. Joyner goes out of his way to label former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney “a clown”. I happened to be living in Atlanta during her last Congressional run.

    I remember how Atlanta’s moneyed white establishment circled their wagons in order to get her out of office. So concerned were they with her growing popularity, that they continue to besmirch her name today.

    Observing Georgia politics gave me the clearest understanding of America’s colonial reality. A false black political face in the front office but brilliantly controlled by a gated white suburbia. The racism, as they say, was stewed to perfection.

  7. mantis says:

    It’s very interesting how Mr. Joyner goes out of his way to label former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney “a clown”. I happened to be living in Atlanta during her last Congressional run.

    I remember how Atlanta’s moneyed white establishment circled their wagons in order to get her out of office. So concerned were they with her growing popularity, that they continue to besmirch her name today.

    She is a clown, and the fact that “Atlanta’s moneyed white establishment” doesn’t like her doesn’t make her any less so.

  8. sam says:

    “It’s very interesting how Mr. Joyner goes out of his way to label former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney “a clown”. ”

    Cynthia Tucker said she was clownish, not JJ. Your reading skills are sorely lacking.

  9. bandit says:

    She’s wrong but she doesn’t know why she was wrong.

    “Unfortunately — like so many measures designed to provide redress for historic wrongs ”

    Wrong answer. The measures were designed to use race for political advantage. Her only complaint is it didn’t work out the way she wanted. She’s still an idiot.

  10. Jay Tea says:

    To call Cynthia McKinney a “clown” is a gross insult.

    To clowns.

    I’ve known a few, and they were decent sorts.

    McKinney is a blithering idiot, a raving loon, and a cheerful tool for anti-American dictators. I believe she also has some hefty “anti-Semite” credentials.

    On behalf of clowns everywhere, I demand an apology.

    Now, if they had just called her a mime…


  11. anphang says:

    With all due respect to those voters who have to live with being represented by idiots – or even those dedicated partisans who have to struggle mightily to defend them – I don’t recall poor voter choices being under the purview of any of the Voting Rights acts. I’ll willingly concede that it’s difficult to quantify the kind of racial progress that the VRA is intended to encourage – but I’d say that this is a problem with much if not most of the legislation that GOP and Dem pols alike try to pass to benefit their constituents.

    I share the national concern with the polarization that has occurred and is occurring. But is the VRA more responsible than interest-group capture, the nationalization of local politics, or think-tank echo chambers? I also recall the Republican establishment being perfectly willing to use the VRA to pack reliably Democratic voters and create space for suburban, reliably GOP districts. Surely this was not an intentional result of the coalition of Northerners and Southern liberals that passed the 1964 VRA.

    Surely the VRA should be judged on whether or not it improved minority representation and voter turnout, and not by whether or not it contributes to trends of political polarization that are happening nationwide, even in districts unaffected by the VRA.

  12. anphang says:

    To address one of JJ’s points, Governor Perry is a Republican from the state with the highest percentage of the uninsured, and one of the largest immigrant populations in the country – and a state which, like every other in the nation, is hurting in this recession. By contrast, his emergency bills did things like force a women to look at an ultrasound before getting an abortion, and crack down on so-called sanctuary cities.

    To give credit to one of JJ’s points, he already says that racial gerrymandering isn’t the sole cause of partisan polarization. However, I can’t help but remember which President whose campaign staff pioneered the partisan turnout-based, screw everyone beyond 50%+1, strategy for election.

  13. Southern Hoosier says:

    Perhaps Cynthia Tucker has come to realize in the next 30-40 years whites will be a minority in this country, With proper Gerrymandering a lot of white majority districts can become white minority districts.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier and his ilk are going to have a really hard time of it in a few decades when their ethnic group is no longer in the majority…

  15. Southern Hoosier says:

    An Interested Party says:
    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 20:06

    Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier and his ilk are going to have a really hard time of it in a few decades when their ethnic group is no longer in the majority…

    So will everyone in the United States.

  16. Southern Hoosier says:

    What Cynthia Tucker seems to forget that Blacks with be out voted 2:1 by Hispanic.

  17. Southern Hoosier says:

    Someone else wants racial gerrymandering.

    Minority Groups: Illinois Redistricting Maps “Unfair”

    Chicago’s burgeoning Chinatown neighborhood should be in one congressional district, rather than fractured into three separate federal voting districts. That’s the consensus of a coalition of Asian-American organizations that are calling on the Illinois General Assembly to “fine tune” the state’s new map of congressional districts.

    “We believe that HB 3760 does not create a sufficient number of districts for Latino electoral opportunities to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Perales told Illinois Statehouse News. Perales argues that the proposed map breaks the law by not creating enough strong Latino voting districts, which MALDEF officials say violates the law banning racial discrimination when it comes to the voting process.


  18. Vince campellone says:

    The wiz kid, gates, shoots his mouth off on Nuclear Energy!
    A subject, that he is vastly lacking. Of course, since he has the
    cash, he must be an expert?