Redistricting and Representation: 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, in which African Americans moved to 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.

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.193  

Carol Moseley-Braun/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_moseley_braun_2000_sho.xml Image courtesy of the 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.
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 black candidates 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 African-American lawmakers or they defeated black incumbents.194 At the opening of the 103rd Congress, African-American representation reached a then-historic high of 40. “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.’ ”195

While race-based redistricting of the early 1990s dramatically increased 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 Supreme Court rendered a judgment in Shaw v. Reno 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 Fourteenth 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.196

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 Miller v. Johnson, 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.197 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.198

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 exception. 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.

Many from the civil rights generation suggested that lumping black voters into specially designated districts ran counter to the movement’s goal of fostering commonality among blacks and whites. 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.”199 By the end of the 1990s, redistricting had largely run its course in areas where black votes could be concentrated with a goal of electing more African Americans to Congress. The net result was that the number of African Americans in Congress leveled off by the mid-1990s and hovered in the high 30s and low 40s for eight election cycles from 1992 through 2006. Despite these gains, by the 115th Congress, African Americans were still underrepresented in Congress. While African Americans constituted roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for just 9.2 percent of the total Members of Congress.200 The redistricting efforts by state governments following the 2010 Census produced congressional districts that were repeatedly challenged in court as racially gerrymandered districts.201

While the boundaries of congressional districts framed the struggle for access to the House, African Americans seeking election to the Senate faced an obstinate, seemingly insuperable barrier. In 1966 Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts became the first African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction—and the first to be elected by popular vote. After Brooke’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 1978, no African American served in the Senate until the election of Carol Moseley Braun in 1992. She became just the fourth African American ever to serve in the Senate 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.202

Lingering racial prejudices, difficulty in securing funding, and the diminished strength of black voting blocs in statewide elections cumulatively discouraged many qualified candidates 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.203 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 2018, 23 women served in the Senate—many of whom had served in the House. African-American Members have not been able to follow a similar path to the Senate through the House. To date, only one African-American Representative has been elected to the Senate—Tim Scott of South Carolina—though several have attempted to make this transition, including Alan Wheat, Denise Majette, and Harold Ford Jr. According to Brooke, the lack of black representation in the Senate remained “a blight on the American electorate that should be removed.”204

Since 2000 the number of African-American Senators has increased at a glacial pace. 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. Throughout his time in office, he was the only African-American Senator—as were his four African-American predecessors. Only in 2013, when William (Mo) Cowan of Massachusetts was appointed to the Senate and joined Senator Tim Scott, did that body include two African-American Members at the same time; Cowan resigned a few months later, but Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey won a special election in October 2013. At the start of the 115th Congress, the Senate reached another milestone when Kamala D. Harris of California brought the total number of concurrently serving African-American Senators to three for the first time. Overall, only 10 African Americans have served in the history of the U.S. Senate.

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193Morris, “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.

194See, 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.

195Kenneth 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.

196Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993). For 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.

197Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995). Linda 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.

198For concise annual summaries of redistricting cases, see “Court Decision May Invalidate Race-Based District Maps,” CQ Almanac, 1995, 51st ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996): 12-3–5, 6-39–40,; “1996 Supreme Court Decisions,” CQ Almanac, 1996, 52nd ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997): 5-48–50,

199Sean Wilentz, “The Last Integrationist: John Lewis’s American Odyssey,” 1 July 1996, The New Republic: 19–26; Canon, Race, Redistricting, and Representation: 5.

200Ida R. Brudnick and Jennifer Manning, “African American Members of the United States Congress: 1870–2018,” 26 April 2018, Report RL30378, Congressional Research Service. For U.S. population statistics as of July 2017, see U.S. Census Bureau, “QuickFacts: United States,” accessed 7 November 2018,

201Adam Liptak, “Splitting 5–4, Justices Put Texas Redistricting on Hold,” 12 September 2017, New York Times: A17; Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Weighs Claims That Texas Voting Maps Discriminate Against Minorities,” 24 April 2018, New York Times: A18.

202Roger 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, ed. Huey L. Perry (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996): 47–61, quotation on page 57.

203John 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.

204Brooke, Bridging the Divide: My Life: 305.