How Gerrymandering Has Created a Segregated House

A mid-century solution to the lack of African-American representation in Congress looks to be less effective in the years ahead.

Rick Bloom / National Journal

Reading Robert Penn Warren's 1964 interview with Martin Luther King Jr. along with Beth Reinhard's piece on how African-Americans still lack clout in Congress makes clear a conundrum at the heart of the unfinished revolution King helped lead. Namely, the minority-vote protections locked in by Section 2 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 worked best to ensure minorities had a voice in their own self-government at the federal level in an environment in which the party that elected African-Americans also controlled the House of Representatives, as Democrats did from 1955 to 1995 and again from 2007 to 2011.

King spoke about how inequality is fostered by physical segregation, which leads to segregated conversational communities. "Our society must come to see that this whole question of, of integration is not merely a matter of quantity -- having the same this and that in terms of a building or a desk or this -- but it's a matter of quality. It's, if I can't communicate with a man, I'm not equal to him. It's not only a matter of mathematics; it's a matter of psychology and philosophy," he told Penn Warren. It's an important point, and one we consider too infrequently these days, in which a more numbers-based approach to questions of equality often reigns supreme.

Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act didn't just work to strengthen the right to vote, but the right to be represented, under Subsection (b) of Section 2.

A violation of subsection (a) of this section is established if, based on the totality of circumstances, it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens protected by subsection (a) of this section in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.

What that meant in practice the rise of majority-minority districts in states where African-Americans or other minorities would otherwise have been unable to win office. When King spoke 50 years ago at the March on Washington, Reinhard points out, there were only five African-Americans in Congress. Today, 48 years after the Voting Rights Act passed, there are 44.

"But," she writes, "those numbers mask a hard reality: Even with an African-American in the White House, blacks arguably have less clout in Congress than they did in 1963."

She continues: "One key hurdle is obvious: All of the African-Americans in the House are Democrats serving in the minority, with scarce hope for a takeover in 2014 .... Another reason for their limited influence is that most come from relatively safe voting districts. Party leaders tend to dole out plum assignments and opportunities to carry legislation to members facing competitive elections."

And Republicans redrew House districts in 2012 to be even safer on their end.

So today we have set-up where minority voters are clustered in districts represented by the minority party in the House, while whites are over-represented in districts represented by the majority party. As Charlie Cook observed in March, "in the process of quarantining Democrats, Republicans effectively purged millions of minority voters from their own districts" with the result of "drawing themselves into safe, lily-white strongholds."

These substantially segregated congressional districts reflect a legacy of, on one side, a fear of contending for the votes of minorities and, on the other, certainty of defeat when contending for the votes of certain whites.

But this mid-century arrangement, strengthened since the 1990s and now hardened into place, is hardly ideal for ensuring minorities have a real say in the federal legislative branch during this extraordinarily partisan era. At the level of the presidential electorate, where everyone is potentially a part of the voting population, it's also not great for Republicans to be seen as the party of white people. (Republican Party leaders in Washington know this, and are working to change such perceptions, though leaders in key states, such as North Carolina, may have different views.)

To return to King's comments, one wonders how much real conversation there is when one party does not, in many districts, have to contend for the votes of minorities, and the other can only elevate minorities into positions of power when the political wind is blowing in its direction.