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11 October 1999

How gerrymandering helped American blacks

In the US, even voting is affected by "affirmative action". David Edmondsreports

By David Edmonds

The relaxed, moustachioed face of the Democrat congressman Melvin Watt is a familiar one around Winston Salem, North Carolina. Watt cheerfully concedes that this is due in large part to the notoriety surrounding his constituency. For when he was first elected in 1992, its contours would have reddened the cheeks of even Elbridge Gerry, the 19th-century governor of Massachusetts whose surname is immortalised in the word “gerrymander” – that vivid word for the murky concept of redrawing voting boundaries to achieve particular electoral outcomes.

Watt’s North Carolina 12th District has in fact always been more serpentine or squashed armadillo than the salamander shape of Gerry’s electoral district. One hundred and sixty miles long, the boundaries of Watt’s constituency were drawn to run from Charlotte in the south-west to Durham in the north-east, weaving in and out of cities, such as Greensboro and Winston Salem, twisting and turning to capture some parts of town and exclude others. At many points it was barely the width of a road. “Look both ways before you cross the constituency,” I was advised. There is nothing convoluted about the congressman’s reputation, however.

“Congressman Watt is not a good representative. ‘Good’ is run of the mill. No, he is not a good representative; he is a fantastic representative,” said Charlie Smith.

Smith is a 49-year-old African American who works the night shift at the tobacco manufacturers R J Reynolds, the largest employer in Winston Salem. He has fought two wars in his life. One was in Vietnam, where he was sent shortly after the Tet offensive and witnessed his closest friend blown up on a landmine. The other was against the US bureaucracy, after his records were misplaced and he was denied the half a dozen medals for gallantry to which he was entitled.

For years his phone calls and letters of protest got nowhere – at one stage he was even told that he was deluded, that he had never enlisted in the army. Finally, and in desperation, he turned to the black congressman who now represents his district. Within four months the matter had been settled, and the medals had been handed over with a perfunctory apology from the Washington authorities. In a ceremony televised by the local station, Smith tried to express his gratitude to his congressman, but overcome by emotion he barely managed to finish his speech.

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The 12th District had its origins in the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most radical and far-reaching pieces of legislation passed by President Lyndon Johnson, who had pressed for the “goddamnedest, toughest voting-rights bill” that could be devised. “Jim Crow” laws had effectively disenfranchised southern blacks; there were poll taxes that few blacks could pay and literacy tests that few blacks could pass. Some Southern registrars were discovered testing black applicants on the number of bubbles in a soap bar.

The 1965 VRA put an end to all that, outlawing all bogus obstacles to voting. The results were immediate and dramatic. In Mississippi, for example, black registration rose from 7 per cent in 1965 to 60 per cent in 1967, a pattern that was repeated elsewhere in the South. Yet the struggle was still only half won. Although blacks could no longer be prevented from putting a cross on the ballot sheet, there were other ways to minimise their political power. A popular tactic, known in psephology-jargon as “cracking”, split concentrations of black voters into several constituencies to prevent a black majority.

The 1982 Voting Rights Act attempted to head off these more sophisticated vote-blocking tactics and was interpreted by the legal system, the Department of Justice and the state legislatures to mean that so-called “majority-minority” districts, – in other words, constituencies where traditional ethnic minorities were in the majority – should be created wherever it was feasible to do so. These sprang up after the 1990 census, not just in the South but across the nation, in New York and Illinois, Texas and Georgia. One Z-shaped constituency in Louisiana became known as the mark of Zorro. The effect was to transform racial politics – the number of African Americans in Congress has doubled to nearly 40 today.

It was only when confronted with constituencies such as the long and winding District 12, that the courts began to have second thoughts. The Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor described the 12th District as bearing “an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid”. As a consequence, and to Melvin Watt’s bemusement, the boundaries of his constituency have been redrawn several times, with the latest plan once again facing scrutiny in the courts.

The man behind each of these judicial battles, an amiable Duke University law professor and former judge, Robinson Everett, says that he is driven by a straightforward principle – that districts should be drawn along colour-blind lines. The constitution, he says, demands nothing less.

Meeting as it does at the crossing point of race and politics, this is an issue that makes enemies out of traditional allies and allies out of traditional foes. Everett is a lifelong Democrat who declares himself committed to racial equality. Voting ghettoes, he believes, will inevitably balkanise American politics.

But black voters in the 12th District say that until the election of Watt to Congress, they had effectively been denied a political voice. Far from the 12th District being an example of electoral apartheid, they insist, it is a response to electoral apartheid. When Watt and an African American woman were elected to Congress in 1992, they were the first blacks to represent North Carolina this century.

In both east and west Winston Salem, smoking, though not compulsory, is a serious leisure activity. Apart from that, the two sides of town have very little in common. East Winston is black, west Winston white, and there are only a few bars and restaurants in town where black and white mingle. This, too, say supporters, justifies racial redistricting.

One of the many twists in this serpentine tail is that the district’s creation was cynically supported by the Republicans, who quietly supplied financial, legal and computer back-up. The result of packing black voters into a small number of constituencies was to bleach surrounding areas. So although many in the “Grand Ole Party” oppose racial redistricting in principle, in practice they rather approve of the results. Racial gerrymandering has helped turn them into the South’s dominant political force.

Watt says that he would not have run for political office had the 12th District not been created in its snaking form. North Carolina is at the northern notch of the Bible belt, a place where Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches outnumber McDonald’s and Burger Kings. The empirical evidence suggests that even now these God-fearing whites are reluctant to vote for African Americans. This is the state represented at the Senate level by Jesse Helms, who can lay claim to being the nation’s most bigoted politician. Helms famously won a narrowly fought campaign against a black opponent after showing a television ad in which a pair of white hands was seen tearing up a job rejection. “You wanted that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority,” intoned the voice-over. District 12 is seen as the equivalent of affirmative action in the voting arena and one hears rumblings from whites that “unqualified” officials are being returned to Washington.

However, even in the South incumbency can be more potent than skin colour. While still unusually elongated, the most recent mutation of Watt’s district has left it shorter and fatter and, in so doing, has reduced its African American component from over a half to a third. Despite that, Watt was triumphantly re-elected in 1998, as were other moderate blacks whose districts had been similarly redrawn following court rulings.

When I travelled with Congressman Watt into the most conservative and rural part of his district, Rowan County, it was clear that this transparently decent politician was winning over even die-hard Republicans. At one meeting of second world war veterans, most of whom would have fought in a segregated army, he was given a hero’s welcome after he had arranged for an extension of land for the veterans’ cemetery.

But whether the interests of African Americans have been well served by these “majority-minority” districts remains a moot point. There are many, such as Robinson Everett, who argue that these gerrymandered districts discourage bi-racial alliances and encourage white representatives to believe their role in office is to represent only their own kind. What is the point of creating majorities at the district level if at the federal level legislators representing black districts are shut out of the corridors of power? Such districts also pander to essentialism – the view that skin colour somehow fixes interest and belief.

Constituencies across America will be redrawn again following the 2000 census. The fate of these intentionally carved-out majority-minority districts now rests with the Supreme Court, whose rulings so far have served only to sow confusion. At present, four Supreme Court justices are conservatives, four liberals, with the swing voter, Sandra Day O’Connor, somewhere in the middle. One of her objections to the 12th District was its “bizarre” shape. For the time being at least, this seems to make the entire electoral map of America subject to her aesthetic whim.

The writer works for the BBC World Service. His “Assignment” programme goes out on 14 October at 8.30am and 7.30pm

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