Redistricting And “Deracialization”: Opportunities And Limits

The return of African Americans to Congress in the third generation (1929–1970) and the phases of rapid expansion (1971–1977, 1991–1995) in the fourth generation are attributable to unique historical forces, the intervention of the courts, and legislative remedies. These developments include the Great Migration, which concentrated blacks in northern cities; the passage and implementation of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (and its extensions); and court decisions in subsequent decades that supported the creation of majority or minority congressional districts.

Carol Moseley-Braun/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_moseley_braun_2000_sho.xml Image courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office The first black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois won her 1992 campaign with a coalition of African Americans, women, and liberal white voters. In this image taken after she left the Senate, she is seen testifying during Senate confirmation hearings on her concurrent appointment in 1999 as U.S. Ambassador to both New Zealand and Samoa.
Title 2 of the Voting Rights Act Amendment of 1982 was critical to the development of racial redistricting after the 1990 Census. That provision marked a significant shift from an emphasis on “process-oriented” remedies, which focused on providing minority voters equal access and opportunity (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) to an emphasis on end results achieved by prohibiting electoral arrangements that had the intent or the effect of diluting minority votes. In addition, the growing number of African-American state legislators on key committees with oversight of election and redistricting issues (by one account, 17 percent of all black state legislators in 1992 served on such committees) significantly boosted black electoral prospects in the early 1990s.173

Redistricting imposed by the courts and the decennial reapportionment mandated by the Constitution were carried out by state legislatures and accounted for major changes in 1992, in combination with an anti-incumbent mood and the election of a Democratic President for the first time in 12 years. That year, more blacks were elected to Congress than in any previous decade (16 Representatives and one Senator), and 13 of the 16 newly elected black House Members were from districts that had been redrawn for black majorities. The other new black Representatives succeeded retiring or defeated black incumbents.174 “I think the Congressional Black Caucus has moved to a whole other level,” Ronald Dellums observed.“We can win. We’ve gone beyond just being ‘the conscience of the House.’”175

At the opening of the 103rd Congress African-American representation reached a then-historic high of 40, including the first black woman Senator, Carol Moseley-Braun. Moseley-Braun’s election was significant for other reasons, too: She became just the fourth African American ever to serve in the upper chamber and the first to be elected as a Democrat. She won decisively in majority-black districts in Chicago but also drew broad-based support from voters from across the state, including a core black constituency, women, and liberal whites.176 Her campaign strategy was essentially one of “deracialization,” a term coined by political scientists to describe an African-American candidate running in a majority-white jurisdiction (often against a white opponent) and energetically seeking white voter support. Black candidates who employed this method avoided strong racial appeals. This strategy was not new; in the 1980s, House Members John Lewis and Mike Espy both won election in districts that, while majority black, required them to develop significant coalitions of both white and African-American voters.177

Edward Brooke and Robert Taft, Jr./tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_brooke_taft_jr_sho.xml Image courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (left) confers with Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio in this undated photograph. Brooke was the first popularly elected African-American Senator and one of just two to serve in the 20th century. Brooke later noted that the lack of black Senators was “a blight on the American electorate that should be removed.”
Nevertheless, African Americans seeking election to the Senate faced an obstinate, seemingly insuperable barrier. Lingering racial prejudices, difficulty in securing funding, and the diminished strength of black voting blocs in statewide elections cumulatively discouraged many qualified blacks from seeking a Senate seat. The major parties nominated only nine African Americans as Senate candidates in the 20th century, and these included Brooke and Moseley-Braun.178 Reflecting on his career as the longest-serving African American in the chamber’s history, Senator Brooke noted that when he came to Washington in 1967, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, a former House Member, was the lone woman. But by 2007, 16 women served in the Senate—many of whom had served in the House. No such transition has yet occurred for black Members. To date, no African-American Representatives have been elected to the Senate, though several have attempted to make this transition, including Alan Wheat, Denise Majette, and Harold Ford, Jr. The lack of black representation in the Senate “deeply saddened” Brooke and, he added, remained “a blight on the American electorate that should be removed.”179 In 2004, Barack Obama—a theretofore little-known Illinois state senator—won election to a seat held by retiring incumbent Peter Fitzgerald, who had defeated Senator Moseley-Braun in her 1998 re-election bid. Employing a campaign strategy (running against African-American GOP nominee Alan Keyes) that echoed Moseley-Braun’s efforts, the charismatic and energetic Senator Obama rapidly evolved into a serious contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. However, halfway through his first Congress he remained the only African-American Senator, as were his four African-American predecessors.

While race-based redistricting of the early 1990s dramatically boosted the number of black Americans in the House, it also produced a tide of lawsuits by voters whose former districts were bifurcated and dissected by state legislatures. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a judgment in Shaw v. Reno (509 U.S. 630) that reinstated a suit by five North Carolinians who charged that one of the state’s new congressional districts (a district represented by Representative Mel Watt that wound along the I-85 corridor and took in several urban areas) violated their 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law by diluting their votes. In a 5 to 4 decision, the court questioned the constitutionality of drawing congressional districts with “bizarre” shapes. While the decision did not overturn a lower-court ruling that rejected the suit, it was returned to the lower courts with what seemed to be a new standard for scrutiny.180

Within a few years, Shaw v. Reno spawned redistricting challenges in a number of states, with the potential to affect the boundaries of roughly a dozen U.S. congressional districts represented by African Americans. On June 29, 1995, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s congressional district map in the case of Miller v. Johnson (515 U.S. 900), a case brought by plaintiffs in a district represented by Representative Cynthia McKinney that stretched from Atlanta to the Georgia coast—some 260 miles away.181 The judgment called into question the creation of any district in which race was the “predominant factor.” Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy explained, “just as the state may not, absent extraordinary justification, segregate citizens on the basis of race in its public parks, buses, golf courses, beaches, and schools,” the government also “may not separate its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race.” The decision reconfigured McKinney’s district, as well as that of another African-American Member from Georgia, Sanford Bishop. Over the course of the next several years, lawsuits challenged the boundaries of African American-held seats in Florida, Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina.182

Virtually all of the black Members whose districts were reconfigured midway through the decade emerged unscathed, and in many cases, reapportionment after the 2000 Census reinforced their positions. Cleo Fields of Louisiana, who spent much of his second term in Congress fighting redistricting challenges in court, was the only casualty. In 1996 a federal district court that relied on the Shaw v. Reno and Miller v. Johnson rationale struck down the Louisiana legislature’s redrawing of Cleo Fields’s Z-shaped district, which included jurisdictions in the state’s northern, eastern, and southern quadrants. Fields’s district was reconfigured so that it no longer had a majority-black population; of even greater significance, his hometown was outside the boundaries of the new district. Consequently, Fields declined to run against the longtime incumbent who represented the new district. The long-term impact of these decisions was ambiguous, with opinion closely divided over the issue. Racially gerrymandered districts remained a politically contentious electoral device on both sides of the political spectrum.183 Liberals believed the districts offered “descriptive” rather than “substantive” representation, and those from the civil rights generation suggested that lumping blacks into specially designated districts ran counter to the movement’s goal of fostering commonality among blacks and whites. In the mid-1990s, John Lewis expressed the concern that majority-black districts could “ensnare blacks in separate enclaves, the exact opposite of what the civil rights movement intended.”184 Conservatives have argued that the creation of the districts endorsed a kind of “racial apartheid” and, more pointedly, that those elected from such districts—which were created to express the interests of a particular racial group—would as a matter of practical politics place their primary allegiance with that group rather than the entire constituency.

Despite major gains in the 1990s, African Americans were still considerably underrepresented in Congress and the state legislatures. According to figures from the 2000 Census, African Americans constituted roughly 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for 8.1 percent of the total number of state legislators nationally in 2003 and just 8 percent of the membership in the 110th Congress.185

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173Morris, “African American Legislators”: 379, 381; David T. Canon, Race, Redistricting, and Representation: The Unintended Consequences of Black Majority Districts (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999): 1.

174See, for instance, Carol Swain, “Black Members: Twentieth Century,” in the Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, Volume 1, Donald Bacon et al. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 173–176.

175Kenneth J. Cooper, “For Enlarged Congressional Black Caucus, a New Kind of Impact,” 19 September 1993, Washington Post: A4. “The conscience of the House” was the self-described role of the CBC shortly after its establishment in 1971.

176Roger K. Oden, “The Election of Carol Moseley-Braun in the U.S. Senate Race in Illinois,” in Race, Politics, and Governance in the United States, Huey L. Perry, ed. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996): 47–61, quotation on page 57.

177Huey L. Perry, “Introduction: An Analysis of Major Themes in the Concept of Deracialization,” in Race, Politics, and Governance in the United States, Perry, ed.: 1–11, especially 4–5.

178John Mercurio, “The Senate Color Barrier: Just Nine African-Americans Nominated in 20th Century,” 8 November 1999, Roll Call: 13. The article relied on statistics compiled in a report on elected black officials by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. For more on this phenomenon and possible explanations, see Linda F. Williams, “White/Black Perceptions of Electability of Black Political Candidates,” The National Political Science Review 2 (1990): 45–64; and Gerber, “African Americans’ Congressional Careers and the Democratic House Delegation”: 833.

179Brooke, Bridging the Divide: My Life: 305.

180For a brief overview of Shaw v. Reno, see Kermit Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 913.

181Linda Greenhouse, “The Supreme Court: Congressional Districts—Justices, in 5–4 Vote, Reject Districts Drawn with Race the ‘Predominant Factor’; New Voting Rules,” 30 June 1995, New York Times: A1. For a brief overview of Miller v. Johnson, see Hall, The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States: 637.

182For concise annual summaries of redistricting cases, see Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1995 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996): 12-3–5, 6-39–40; Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997): 5-48–50.

183The clustering of black votes has electoral repercussions for the major parties, irrespective of their stated ideological preferences. For instance, particularly in the South during the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats lost seats in districts coterminous with black majority districts, when redistricting had shifted sizeable minority populations from their old districts into the new borders of black majority districts. “Thus,” explains political scientist David T. Canon, “Republicans tend to oppose the districts on principle, but quietly support them for political reasons, while many white Democrats support the districts in principle but privately hope they will be abolished.” See Canon, Race, Redistricting, and Representation: 5; Bernard Grofman, ed., Race And Redistricting in the 1990s (NY: Agathon Press, 1998).

184Sean Wilentz, “The Last Integrationist: John Lewis’s American Odyssey,” 1 July 1996, The New Republic: 19–26; Canon, Race, Redistricting, and Representation: 5.

185Some analysts believe the numbers may already have peaked. Political scientist Carol Swain has observed problems arising from the concentration of the black population in majority-black districts, particularly as the voting-age populations in these districts decline. That factor and the natural population level of African Americans create a ceiling that prevents greater gains. See, for instance, Swain, “Black Members: Twentieth Century”: 175–176; see also Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: 207–225. For the 2003 figures (the most recent available) on state legislator demographics, see the National Conference of State Legislators Web site at (accessed 11 December 2007).