No Black Senators and the Vestiges of Racism

Nate Silver over at the superb FiveThirtyEight.com attempts to explain why there are no Black senators:

I suspect that a lot of the problem, however, is that as Congressional Districts have become more and more gerrymandered, leading to the creation of more and more majority-minority districts following the 1980 and 1990 censuses, the black political apparatus has become more and more 'ghettoized'. Black candidates have not had to develop a message that appeals to white voters, because most of them don't have very many white voters in their districts (about half the nation's African-American population is limited to the 60 blackest Congressional Districts). Nor do they have very many conservative voters in their districts, and so they have not had to develop a message that appeals to conservatives, even though the black population itself is far more diverse in its political views than is generally acknowledged.

Because they are not very representative of their states as a whole, moreover, these districts are also not likely to be very good launching pads for ascension to the Senate or to the governor's mansion. Do I think Jesse Jackson Jr. would have some trouble winning statewide office? I do — but I also think that Pete Stark, who lives in a mostly white and Asian but extremely liberal district in the Bay Area, would have trouble becoming a senator in California.

Conversely, of course, the majority-minority districts drain black voters from surrounding districts, and so white politicians have not had to develop messages that appeal to black voters. This may be particularly problematic for Republicans, who went from winning 16-18 percent of the black vote for the Presidency in the 1970s to only about half of that now.

Democrats ought to be mindful of these things when redistricting occurs again after 2010, aggressively challenging Republicans on both the wisdom and the legality of creating ghettoized Congressional Districts. Majority-minority districts harm Democrats by creating surplus Democratic votes, and in the long run, they probably hurt African-Americans too

I take some issue with the term "ghettoized Congressional Districts" and the apparent disdain for redistricting only because this post is written in the absence of history.

Nate doesn't talk about why districts are drawn the way they are – The Voting Rights Act of 1965.  By leaving the VRA out, the post comes across like redistricting is purely political.  Some of it is, but some of it isn't.

Nate correctly states that Black congressman are elected from majority-minority districts.  But it wasn't always like that.  Before 1965, Black people's vote was blocked and even in majority-minority districts Black people had no effect on the outcome of most elections.

The Voting Rights Act fixed that because the behavior of officials in those states was unconstitutional as it flew directly in the face of the "one person one vote" principle that is the basis for our electoral system.  Section 5 of the VRA says that when redistricting happens in areas that have a history of racial voting discrimination — many of the very areas that Nate references — they have to prove to the federal government that the change will not have an adverse effect on the ability of minorities to elect their candidate of choice. 

This is critical.  States and jurisdictions have to do research and they have to prove that they aren't screwing Black folks.  If they can do that the change goes into effect; if not, it doesn't. 

In 2006, Section 5 of the VRA (and 2 other key provisions) were reauthorized for another 25 years.  The reason they were reauthorized is because the truth is that racial voting patterns is still rampant in the VRA states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, most of Virginia and parts of California, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York,  North Carolina, and South Dakota).  In addition, there was ample evidence in the VRA states of institutional resistance to minority voting. 

So while Black congressmen do come from these districts, its still not easy for them to get elected. 

Nate does say that there are limitations to redistricting in that
candidates end up talking to like-minded people (Dems to Dems, Black
folks to Black folks, Republicans to Republicans, etc).  And he does
complicate the issue a bit when he acknowledges that black politics is
more diverse than even Black politicians admit.

But the reality is that in the absence of federal law, the number of Black congressmen would likely decrease.

Obviously – in light of Obama's win and Duval Patrick's win in 2006,
some of the conventional wisdom about what Black people can and cannot do to get elected needs to be
interrogated, and in all likelihood, will be interrogated. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at this eloquently:

And so that leaves us with a question–What will we do? I look at my home state of Maryland. I look at the shifting demographics of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. I look at Corey (sic) Booker in New Jersey, Deval Patrick is Massechussets (sic). I think about how this isn't 1988. How will play on this feild (sic)? Is it enough that to just be black, or should we be organizing around issues, not people? We just watched a black man use technology–and the sacrifices of others–to win. Is there not some lesson for us there? Is it only that our way in, must be through the worst impulses of corrupt politicians? What will be our magic, as Baraka would say. What will be our sacred words?

Perhaps with this Burris mess, the nation will think seriously about the dearth of Black senators. I am not sure. I do think Nate's post main point – that it is still really really hard for Black people to get elected by large numbers of White people — is an important point in keep in mind as we continue to have this conversation.

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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