The Curious History of Hyper-Minority Districts

In the ’80s, I feared that racially carved districts would polarize our politics. How I was right—and pleasantly wrong.

The editor in chief of this magazine recently called my attention to a piece in The Atlantic, by Dave Wasserman, the great sage of House races for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. “Is It Time to Rethink Hyper-Minority Districts?” was the headline, and the question is a welcome one.

I used to work down the hall from Wasserman at Atlantic Media and knew him then as someone with an incredible mind for politics and statistics, which is why some half-million people follow him on Twitter and why his tag line for declaring a race—“I’ve seen enough”—has become a staple of American political culture. (He’s also played fiddle with my brother, but that’s another story.) This latest Wasserman piece is about how a number of Black legislators are rethinking the contours of majority-minority districts—legislative districts that are drawn with an eye toward electing minority representatives and are often mandated by the Voting Rights Act, even in its post-2013 diminished form. It did not disappoint.

Black political veterans quoted in the piece shared their frustration that too many minorities are being packed into too few districts, depriving their state of more Black representatives. Terri Sewell of Alabama, the state’s only Black lawmaker in Congress, represents a district with a 61 percent Black population. At one time, Black office holders, civil rights lawyers, and others might have seen that as a necessary number of Black citizens to elect a Black representative. But Sewell is willing to bet her political fortunes on the belief that the number of African Americans in her district could be significantly reduced and she could still be elected. If they were placed in another district, Sewell argues, the state could have two Black representatives in Congress and not just one. “I’m for broadening the representation of African Americans across Alabama instead of concentrating it in my district,” she told Wasserman.

Leaving aside the specifics of Alabama, this kind of thinking is a welcome development. For one, it recognizes that Black legislators can be elected from districts that are not overwhelmingly Black, which is evident but not always treated as such. As Wasserman noted, more than half of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus were elected from districts that are not majority Black. This would have been unthinkable not long ago when an older generation of Black lawmakers was synonymous with the Black landmarks and neighborhoods they represented, such as Charles Rangel from Harlem and William Lacy Clay Sr. from St. Louis or Harold Ford Sr. from Memphis.

It’s different now. Wasserman doesn’t cite her, but I like to note that Representative Lauren Underwood, one of the very impressive members of the very impressive House class of 2018, is the kind of Democrat who just might hang on next year because she’s a good campaigner and has a strong career in public health at a time when that is, um, kind of on people’s minds. She is Black and represents Illinois’s 14th District, which was long held by former Republican House speaker (and convicted felon) Denny Hastert. Underwood has a nursing degree from the University of Michigan and two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins. The district is almost 80 percent white and barely 3 percent Black. This is not to say that a Black candidate can win in any district with a tiny proportion of Black voters. But the 14th is not a liberal canton like the North Shore. It includes exurbs of Chicago like Naperville and plenty of Trump-friendly small towns. Biden won the 14th by less than 2 percent, and Trump carried it by 4 percent in 2016. U.S. politics is famously polarized, yes, but in many places like the 14th, it’s not so racially polarized that a Black candidate can’t win. That’s good.

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson told his aides, “I want the goddamndest, toughest voting rights law you can find.” They produced it astonishingly quickly. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a moral triumph for the country when it was signed in August, just months after the bloody march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. But it was a legislative and bureaucratic triumph, too. It managed to empower Black voters who had been denied their rights, particularly in the South. It gave tools for lawyers to take to court. It had national elements such as the ban on literacy tests and regional ones like the multilingual balloting provisions and, famously, the creation of a “pre-clearance” bureaucracy at the Justice Department that required certain states and counties with a discriminatory history to have any changes in voting procedure from, say, moving a polling place or annexing nearby land, approved by either the Department of Justice or the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This was an emergency power requiring regular congressional renewal—and its renewal, in fact, spanned 48 years.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the standards that were being used to decide which districts required pre-clearance from the DOJ were unconstitutional. This is the much-discussed “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act, which is a fair description, although it fails to note that pre-clearance itself was not struck down. If Congress could rewrite the standards, the Voting Rights Act might be diminished, but it would be whole. The House has already passed such legislation, but, as is so familiar, it has languished in the Senate, where it could pass were the filibuster abolished or curtailed.

The Voting Rights Act was and is largely interpreted by courts to very often require the creation of majority-minority districts. Like the famed Justice Potter Stewart line about pornography—you know it when you see it—the courts have treated the amorphous question of electoral fairness in different ways. After all, judging whether a 61 percent district is fair to Black voters and candidates versus a 51 or 41 percent district is not as clear cut as, say, striking down a literacy test. What’s not ambiguous is that civil rights plaintiffs were given an enormous boost when Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1982 to outlaw voting practices with a discriminatory effect rather than discriminatory intent. This dramatically lowered the burden for Black plaintiffs. A few years later, in 1986, the Supreme Court overturned North Carolina’s redistricting scheme and issued rules that made it easier to sue political jurisdictions for not creating minority-majority districts. It also presented Republicans with a delicious opportunity.

As my editor reminded me, in a depressing allusion to the passage of time, it’s been some years since I wrote a piece for the Monthly dealing with this topic. “Beware of Republicans Bearing Voting Rights Suits” appeared in the February 1987 issue. (To put it in context, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” hit No. 1 that month.) My reporting and that of others at the time got little attention. I had worked on voting issues for the federal government and had, as someone who believed in a hopeful, biracial politics, thought that the rapid proliferation of safe Black districts was dividing the polity and helping Republicans. When I became a professional journalist, I wrote that piece and noted that Republicans had actually joined with Black plaintiffs in many suits, especially across the South, to create more minority-majority districts.

If civil rights lawyers and Black candidates rejoiced in these racial carve-outs, so did Republicans, because it drained the surrounding districts of Black citizens, often making them lily white and ripe for Republican pickup. No wonder the Republican National Committee’s top computer expert, I noted, joined several suits launched by minority plaintiffs. “Sometimes Blacks and Republicans make common cause,” he told me. Likewise, the Reagan Justice Department also found itself pushing for these districts along with civil rights groups. That kind of common cause led to huge GOP gains across the South. As I wrote at the time, “When North Carolina was reapportioned to comply with the Voting Rights Act in 1984, nearly half of the 24 Republican state legislative seat pickups came in districts where lines had been redrawn.” In the 1980s, I noted, the Reagan administration, while gleefully opposing affirmative action in higher education and employment, was happy to continue Democratic policies when it came to voting. As one RNC aide told me at the time, in language that is now especially cringeworthy, ​​“You know, the federal government goes through the South and says you have been very bad to your blacks [sic]. You have to desegregate your restaurants, your schools, and your hotels. And, yes, you have to segregate your districts.”

In many places, the resulting Black electoral wins were so welcome that little thought was given to how they got there. Consider Atlanta. In 1972, the civil rights leader Andrew Young became the first Black member of Congress elected from Georgia since Reconstruction; he won an Atlanta district that was 48 percent Black. (He would later become UN ambassador and Atlanta’s mayor.) In the following years, court decisions and DOJ pressure made the seat even safer for a Black candidate, raising its Black population to more than 60 percent. The court battles were often ugly. A federal judge repeated a charge that a Black legislator who opposed the racial packing of the Fifth District was an “Aunt Jane.” For all of the efforts to make the district still more friendly to Black candidates, it actually chose a white liberal, Wyche Fowler, to represent it for several terms. In 1986, Fowler decided not to seek reelection so he could run for the U.S. Senate, a race he won. This led to a battle for the district between two civil rights icons, John Lewis and Julian Bond, each seeking the Democratic nomination. Lewis, of course, won, with a coalition of white voters and poorer African Americans. It’s hard not to cheer for the election of a certifiable hero who would go on to serve for more than three decades.

Whether Lewis could have won in the district with a smaller number of Black voters is unprovable but likely. Young took the seat with fewer African Americans just seven years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. What is provable is that the surrounding districts became whiter, electing Republicans. Liberals like former Representative Eliott Levitas told me at the time that they were distraught about the way the Reagan administration had made common cause with civil rights groups to create more Black districts. In the adjacent congressional district, where the percentage of African Americans was reduced from 28 to 17 percent, Levitas, a veteran Jewish moderate with an early and outspoken record on civil rights, was roadkill.

As Wasserman notes, not all Black office holders are willing to run the risk of lowering the number of African American citizens in a district to create another opportunity for a Black candidate. Bennie Thompson, the current chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and the cochair of the January 6 select committee, is the only Black member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation. He doesn’t want to see the number of Black citizens in his district reduced. “I’m not one who would sacrifice [Mississippi’s Second] District on a whim to elect another Democrat,” he told Wasserman. Whether you view that as wise (“Hey, better safe than sorry”) or myopic (“Mississippi is more than 40 percent black; Black candidates can win two seats”), the mere fact that this is now a debate is a healthy one.

My great fear in 1987 was that white and Black candidates would eschew 50-50-ish districts and Black and white pols wouldn’t create them. I feared that legislative candidates would increasingly only run in safe ethnic enclaves. Some of my fears about the creation of these enclaves came to pass, and Black political power was, I think, often diminished by the creation of so many white Republican districts where their needs and wants could be ignored even as the number of Black elected officials grew. Regardless of what I thought, the law and the courts clearly mandated their creation.

What I was pleasantly wrong about during the late Reagan administration, when I was a 24-year-old editor of this magazine, was the number of Black candidates who would bravely seek seats in majority-white states and districts such as Underwood, the U.S. representative from Illinois, as well as then State Senator Barack Obama, who chose to run statewide in 2004. I’m thinking of longtime Representative Bobby Scott in Virginia and the newcomer Antonio Delgado in upstate New York. I didn’t anticipate a year like this, where moderate and liberal Black voters would build alliances with whites to defeat left progressives in races like Eric Adams in New York and the Louisiana congressional district vacated by Cedric Richmond, where the progressive Nina Turner had more money and name recognition but still lost.

In places where Black candidates have lost high-profile races—such as Boston, where earlier this month no Black office seeker, including the acting mayor, made it into the Democratic runoff—it shouldn’t be cause for despair. As my colleague Bill Scher noted, that’s a disappointment to these Boston mayoral candidates and their supporters, but it does not mean that Black voters have no clout with the Taiwanese American and Tunisian American candidates who made the cut.

I don’t mean to sound too sanguine. In a better world, the Supreme Court would not have overturned a vital provision of the Voting Rights Act, which, it should be said, was renewed virtually unanimously by Congress in 2005 and signed into law by George W. Bush. (Talk about legislating from the bench.) In a better world, the GOP would not be wedded to undermining elections by making it harder to cast ballots and easier for GOP pols to steal them. It’s not hyperbole to say that these are perilous times. But the good news from Dave Wasserman’s findings and the Black rethinking about majority-minority districts is a reminder that in a big, complex nation, things can get worse and better at the same time. That might be small comfort in 2021, but it’s nonetheless worth affirming.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.