For the past three decades the right has more or less monopolized the espoused value of color blindness, while progressives have insisted that cultural differences matter and should be celebrated, that racial disparities must be acknowledged to be addressed.
Pastor Mark Burns, the black televangelist from South Carolina, spoke most directly to the heart of the contemporary GOP during the Republican National Convention last month when he denounced “those race baiting Democrats” and charged that the party of Hillary Clinton “will do whatever it takes to keep us Americans focused on the colors that divide us and not the colors that unite us.”
So it’s novel, to say the very least, that the Republican lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly discovered the religion of diversity during their 2011 redistricting effort — two years before passing another election bill that disproportionately burdened African Americans by requiring certain types of IDs they were least likely to carry and eliminating voting practices that they were most likely to favor.
In ordering the North Carolina General Assembly to redraw state legislative district lines before the 2018 election, a federal court panel last week found that “race was the predominant factor” in 28 districts where the Republican mapmakers packed black voters so they would make up more than 50 percent of the voting age population. In defense of their scheme, Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis — co-chairs of the redistricting committee — cited Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, yet they failed to make a case that there was a violation of the African Americans’ voting rights in need of a cure beyond a general pattern of racially polarized voting.
It’s likely that Rucho and Lewis knew exactly what they were doing — manipulating race to lock in a partisan advantage. If they didn’t, they received an elegant lesson in the history of voting rights and the US Constitution from Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr., who wrote that thousands of “North Carolina citizens have suffered severe constitutional harms stemming from defendants’ creation of 28 districts racially gerrymandered in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”
As Judge Wynn explained, race may only predominate over other considerations — like compactness, contiguity, respect for political jurisdictions and communities defined by shared interests — in redistricting if it is “narrowly tailored” to meet a compelling state interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act. The test for whether race is necessary to remedy a violation goes back to 1986, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a black North Carolinian named Ralph Gingles. The court ordered North Carolina to throw out its old multi-member system of electing state lawmakers, which made it next to impossible for black candidates to win elections. The crucial question, then and now, is whether racial minorities are able to elect a “candidate of choice.” And in Gingles the Supreme Court established a threefold test, as Judge Wynn explained:
- “That [the minority group] is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
2. “that it is politically cohesive; and
3. “that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it… usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.”
Rucho and Lewis seem to have overlooked the third question.
While one of the defendant’s expert witnesses presented a report showing racially polarized voting in 50 out of 51 counties during the 2008 primary, Judge Wynn noted that they ranged from Greene County, where only 4.7 percent of non-black voters supported Barack Obama in the Democratic primary to Durham County, where nearly 60 percent did.
In almost half of the districts where Republican legislators maximized the number of black voters, the court found that black candidates had consistently won elections with less than 50 percent black voting age population.
So race-obsessed were Rucho and Lewis that they drew Linda Garrou out of her Forsyth County district, noting that she was a “white incumbent” who had “defeated African-American candidates in 2004 and 2010.” But the court noted that Garrou won by large margins of more than 80 percent, and by the defendants’ own admission, African Americans comprised 68.7 percent of the voters in her district. They must have been happy with her representation.
And in Guilford County, the Republicans created a third minority-majority House district with the redrawn District 57. With 50.7 percent black voting age population and much of its base concentrated in northeast Greensboro, District 57 was custom-made for Yvonne Johnson, but the former mayor passed on the opportunity to run for the seat in 2012. And in 2014, voters rejected the gift offered by the Republicans by reelecting the white incumbent, Pricey Harrison, over a black challenger, Jim Kee.
Maybe it’s the Republicans who need to get over race.