TOPICS > Politics

Politics of Race

December 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Six years ago, the Justice Department said 13 states, most of them in the South, weren’t doing enough to protect the voting rights of blacks and Hispanics. The department’s solution was to encourage creation of more congressional districts containing mostly minority voters. Twenty new so-called majority minority districts were drawn up from New York to California. The first elections in the new districts in 1992 brought dramatic results.

MEL WATT: I’m just happy to be here and be representing the new 12th congressional district.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1992, voters in 19 of the 20 new majority minority districts elected a black or Hispanic representative to Congress, firsts for several southern states. But the district soon became the subject of legal challenges, most brought by white voters. And in 1995, the Supreme Court declared majority minority districts were unconstitutional if they were drawn primarily based on race.

A. LEE PARKS, Plaintiffs’ Attorney: (August 1995) The Justice Department put us on a real bad road, and we’ve gotten back on the right road.

KWAME HOLMAN: As a result, the Georgia district, represented by Cynthia McKinney, the first black woman to win a congressional seat in that state, and several other new districts were ordered redrawn.

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY, (D) Georgia: (August 1995) The Supreme Court ruling deviated from 30 years of American history and said, well, all it takes is one disgruntled constituent who doesn’t like the shape of the district, or who doesn’t like the color of the representative and that one disgruntled constituent can file a lawsuit and can put us into court.

KWAME HOLMAN: In re-mapping Georgia’s districts, a panel of federal judges let stand one of the state’s majority minority districts but eliminated the other two. So this year, McKinney and Sanford Bishop, a black congressman from the other majority minority district, had to run in districts that were majority white. But last month, both McKinney and Bishop easily won re-election in their new districts; so did black and Hispanic incumbents in Texas and Florida, where congressional maps also had to be redrawn. Nonetheless, the challenges to the Georgia congressional map aren’t over. Today, the Supreme Court heard from attorneys for a group of African-American voters who want the court to restore at least one of Georgia’s two lost majority minority districts.

LAUGHLIN McDONALD, Plaintiffs’ Attorney: Congresswoman McKinney is Exhibit A in support of the proposition that the kind of highly integrated majority minority districts that were drawn around the South after the 1990 Census are good for minorities, and they are good for this country, good for American democracy. They support the concept of inclusiveness. I think they tend to break down racial barriers. Cynthia is Exhibit A in support of that proposition.

KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia’s attorney general Mike Bowers defended the one district map.

REPORTER: Do you think you could ever draw another–a second majority black district constitutionally in Georgia?

MIKE BOWERS, Georgia Attorney General: Oh, yes, absolutely. And it’s a question of three factors: No. 1, do you have a large compact minority population; No. 2, do you have political cohesion within that group; and No. 3, does the white vote always outvote it? They must satisfy those three criteria, or you can’t draw the district. And that was our point to the court. You simply can’t do it on this record.

KWAME HOLMAN: The justices also will decide a related Louisiana case, addressing in particular the role of the Justice Department which consistently has advocated creating more majority minority districts. Decisions in both cases are expected by next summer.

JIM LEHRER: Now to a debate and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Now four different perspectives on what role race should play in designing congressional voting districts. They come from Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, who, as we heard, just won re-election in November, after her black majority district was redrawn by the courts; Elaine Jones, director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “Whose Votes Count: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights;” and Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and former staff director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration. Congresswoman, as we’ve just seen and heard, you’ve won re-election from a majority white district. Why do you continue to believe that these specially-drawn racially drawn majority black districts are necessary?

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY, (D) Georgia: First of all, we need to make it very clear that the reason I was able to win in the new 4th congressional district of Georgia was because of the voters of the old 11th district and the chance that those voters and that district gave me to become an incumbent, and because I was an incumbent in the old 11th district, I was able then to develop a track record, to become known by the voters of the new 4th district, and most importantly to raise the almost $1 million across the country that it took for me to wage a viable congressional campaign. Otherwise, I would have been outspent. I would not have been able to get my message out to the voters of the new 4th district. I would not have had a track record. They would not have known me, and I suspect, quite frankly, that I would not have won. Now, on the district of–on the issue of contorted districts, I just want to remind people that minority districts are not the only contorted districts. This 6th congressional district of Texas was declared constitutional more than 90 percent white but this district was declared constitutional, I suspect, because it was “not” a minority district. So we also have established by the Supreme Court an extreme double standard on the treatment of minority voters.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Abigail Thernstrom, you’ve been very critical–you’ve written very critically of these majority minority districts. Why?

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM, Manhattan Institute: (Boston) Well, I don’t like the racial sorting. That is, I like people treated as individuals and not on the basis of the color of their skin. There is an assumption behind these districts that whites and blacks cannot share the same pollutants space and that, indeed, this country is still whites in this country, indeed, are still so racist that it is not possible to have districts in which black candidates need to pick up white votes in order to win. When the districts in Georgia were struck down, Cynthia McKinney and others said it is impossible for us to win, the Congressional Black Caucus is all going to fit in the back of a taxicab, this is ethnic cleansing, Jesse Jackson said. Indeed, every one of the black incumbents that once were elected from majority black districts have been re-elected. They needed white votes, and they got white votes. In 1996, it is not 1960 still– America has changed. And as for–as for the question of incumbency, the first place, I never heard that argument before the election. All I heard was Cynthia McKinney could not win. She doesn’t know, and I don’t know how many black candidate can win in majority white districts because not enough have tried. You can’t win elections you don’t run in. We have a very strong record, however, of black mayoral success in majority white cities. 67 percent of black mayors in this country have been–have needed white votes and have gotten white votes over the last 30 years. That is in cities 50,000 and up in population.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Elaine Jones in on this. Do the results of the election last month at all shake your belief that these majority minority districts remain necessary?

ELAINE JONES, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Oh, there’s no doubt that the majority minority districts remain necessary. While I am very, very proud of the American people first, for seeing to it that a Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and for seeing to it that it was amended in 1982, over 78 percent in a recent study shows that the American people support our having in this nation integrated political entities–Congress, city councils across the board. If you notice, Margaret, and you look across the South, and that’s what we’re talking about today, over half of the African-American population resides in the South–one hundred and thirteen congressional districts in the South, as we speak. The first time a majority white district from the South has sent to the Congress an African-American was this election in the history of this country. Now, that’s wonderful, that those three happened in 1996. But it means that the Voting Rights Act is helping us to get where we want to be as a country. And since it’s helping us get there, don’t throw away the vehicle, the tool that’s causing us to make the racial progress that we’re making as a people. Let us embrace it and continue. Now, the Voting Rights Act expires in the year 2007. At that time then we can look and see if we’ve made progress. Now, one other point to make about Cynthia’s election, while it is a majority white district, it’s–I don’t–approximately 53 percent–

MARGARET WARNER: I think 65 percent.

ELAINE JONES: –65 percent majority white–she did not receive a majority of the white vote. She received a hundred percent of the African-American vote, and she got 31 percent of the white vote, which is wonderful. It’s an increase. It means progress, but we’re by no means there. Now, she ran in a heavily Democratic district, heavily Democratic. Yet, she only received 31 percent of the white vote. 69 percent of that vote went someplace else. So, we’re making progress, but we’re not there yet.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Linda Chavez, weigh in on this point about whether–I know you’re opposed to these districts–but answer the point about whether blacks and Hispanics can get elected from majority white districts without the leg up essentially, as Cynthia McKinney said, that she got from starting out in a majority minority district.

LINDA CHAVEZ, Center for Equal Opportunity: (Dallas) First of all, I think it’s important to remember that Elaine Jones, Cynthia McKinney, and others were saying a year ago that the sky was falling. They were Chicken Little. They were running around, saying that the sky was falling, that no one was going to be re-elected from these newly redrawn districts. And in fact, that’s why we are not back in the Supreme Court, arguing this point, is because they still believe that you must have racially gerrymandered districts. And yet, they were proved wrong on November 5th. And I find it fascinating that Elaine Jones talks about 100 percent of black voters voting for Cynthia McKinney. Presumably, she approves of that and sees that not as an example of racial polarization, and yet, it is true that more whites are willing to vote for black candidates in this particular election than blacks were willing to vote for white candidates. So this idea that we are a society absolutely divided by race and that whites will implacably oppose black candidates has been proven wrong. It’s been proven wrong not by the courts but by the people at the polls.

MARGARET WARNER: So Abigail Thernstrom, are you saying that you believe that despite this history–explain this history that Elaine Jones just cited–that until this year from the South no black or Hispanic–no black had ever been elected from a majority white district.

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Well, you cannot win elections in which you do not run. And black candidates were not willing to wade into the biracial waters and see what happened. Now, in part, they weren’t willing to do that, I think in great part, because Elaine Jones delivered what I regard as a totally anti-civil rights message. That is, she says to potential black candidates don’t bother to run where you’re going to need white support, it’s hopeless, this is much too racist a country, you might as well stay home, and she says to black voters, unless you are voting in a majority black constituency, don’t bother to vote because your vote won’t count. It seems to me that’s not a civil rights message. If the message had been going out much earlier to potential black candidates, try it, it might work, we might have the record in Congress that we do in black–with black mayors. Black mayors have been willing to run where they needed white votes, the majority of black mayors in cities, as I said, 50,000 and up, the overwhelming majority. They knew they needed white votes. They went after those white votes. They got those white votes. That’s a very, very heartening story. And we can, I believe, see the same heartening story with respect to Congress. But you can’t win elections you don’t run in.


REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY: I think that’s absolute rubbish. And let me tell you why. In the first place we have something called the second primary in most of the southern states, where you have to run three times in order to win once. And because of the second primary, which was instituted in the state of Georgia for the express purpose of keeping Negroes and liberals out of public office in Georgia–

MARGARET WARNER: And let’s just explain briefly what it is. If you don’t get over 50 percent in the primary, then there’s a runoff.

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY: Then there’s a runoff, that’s correct. And secondly, all we have to do if we are concerned about the racially–the existence of racially polarized black voting, we need only look as far as North Carolina, with a poll that was taken where 30 percent of the respondents said under no circumstance would they vote for an African-American candidate. Then we see that in 1996, Harvey Gant failed to gain a substantial number of white votes and lost his race for the Senate. And then we need to go over to Louisiana, and we look at the Gubernatorial race of Cleo Fields, a bright, young articulate member of Congress who ran for governor after being redistricted out of his district, and he failed to garner enough Democratic votes in a Democratic state.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me just let Elaine Jones get in. Then I’ll get to you.

ELAINE JONES: Thank you, Margaret. On a couple of occasions. Let me say first that I represent an organization, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was founded by Thurgood Marshall, and we for 56 years have fought very hard for a desegregated environment and an integrated country in all of our institutions, political, educational, social. We stand for that. We believe strongly. That’s why we say you can’t put our head in the sand and ignore the past. It has implications for the present. Over half African-Americans in the South, all of this century, the first time a black was elected to the Congress from the South was Andy Young and Barbara Jordan in 1972. It took majority minority districts to get them there. That’s what it has taken. Now, what we say is keep referring to the mayors. All right. These mayors in this country who are elected in the South, who are elected in cities that have over 50,000 population. Those cities are Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans, heavily black population, and over Georgia black population in this cities, as well as Dallas, which is half minority. So unfortunately, we have needed this remedy. Hopefully, it is a temporary remedy. We’re not there yet. We’re making progress. I applaud the 31 percent of the white voters in Georgia who for the first time reached out and supported Cynthia. And we’re going to have more of that. But we’re not there yet.


LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, I’m pleased to hear that Elaine Jones still believes in integration, as do I. And I believe in integrated voting districts. I believe that it is important that we not just people totally on the basis of the color of their skin, we not presume that all black voters are going to vote for a black representative and that they’re going to believe that only a black can represent them in Congress because the reverse of that would be that white voters will always vote for white candidates and that whites will believe that only whites can represent their interests. In fact, what we have as a result of the election this November is proof that whites are willing to elect blacks to represent them when they believe those black candidates represent their views. Now, in many instances, black candidates are more liberal and do not represent necessarily the majority view in the white community. And I think that it is commendable that we saw a third of white voters in these five districts voting for the black candidate.

ELAINE JONES: Margaret, just let me say quickly to Linda–

LINDA CHAVEZ: Briefly. We–

ELAINE JONES: –uncharacteristically she has missed the point. The point is not the race of the person elected to the office. The point is whether or not those voters in a district can elect representatives of their choice, no matter what color. And they have elected whites. They also choose to elect blacks. Also, the election of these blacks desegregates or integrates our Congress for the first time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we’ll have to leave it there. Sorry. Thanks very much.