Here We Go: Post-Racial America is Underway
Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Since Barack Obama won the presidential election last November, we have been predicting that there would be a groundswell of “post-racial” rhetoric by conservatives who do not believe that racism is real and who wish to see an end to policies and programs designed to take systemic racism into account.
THIS WEEK, we call your attention to a relatively ignored op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times that calls for the end of racial gerrymandering. As loyal TWIR readers know, we avoid speculating on intent, but it’s interesting to note that the piece is written from a representative of a Chicago-based outfit called the Heartland Institute, whose mission is
to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.
The author of this piece asks us to believe that he is advocating stopping the practice of taking race into consideration when drawing congressional district lines because, at least in part, it is bad for Black folks. Ralph Conner, who is African American, begins his piece by asking: “Why aren’t there more black senators and governors? The answer is not what you might think.”
Actually, it’s exactly what you think. It is because history has shown — and scientific studies have found — that White folks tend not to vote for Black candidates. A handful of anecdotes do not falsify these findings anymore than some unseasonable cold days prove that global warming is a myth (oh yeah — we’ve heard that one, too).
Early in the piece, Conner notes that “Obama’s election clearly confirms that majority-white America is comfortable with a president of African descent.” He then asks, “Then why only one black in the Senate?”
The premise is faulty. Obama’s election does not confirm (clearly or otherwise) anything of the sort. It only confirms that America was comfortable with Barack Obama in 2008, not with any president of African descent at any time. So to begin, Conner’s argument is built on weak structural footing. In any case, he continues:
The real cause of this paucity of blacks in Congress is not racism, however, but racial gerrymandering, in which black voters are concentrated in congressional districts where blacks predominate, instead of designing districts to follow more natural geographical and institutional boundaries.
The first part represents his primary argument, so we will leave it aside for a few moments. There is yet another questionable statement here, though. What, we wonder, is a “natural geographic [or] institutional boundary?” Think about the task that is involved in redistricting. At the conclusion of each national census, the 435 U.S. House seats are distributed among the fifty states roughly based on population (each state must have at least one seat, and seats may not cross state borders). So a state, such as Illinois, with over 12 million people, must be divided into (in this case) 19 districts that are relatively equal in size. Given that no state contains an even distribution of its citizens, geometric shapes are a pipe dream. Districts based on something “natural” (we presume rivers, mountains or even highways) would be impossible, as well, since citizens are not so kind as to reside in groups of roughly 650,000 to make such district lines are plausible. The fact is that people (politicians) have to draw these boundaries, and when that happens, electoral consequences will be taken into account (for better or worse). Conner’s suggestion merely makes racial prejudice and oppression less important than other political issues (party, income, etc.) that factor into gerrymandering.
Then, Conner puts forth what is ostensibly the most reasonable part of the argument. Effectively, he argues that talented Black politicians are not able to be known statewide because they are not forced to campaign to a broader audience. It’s an argument that is not bad on its face, but if we take a deeper look at what he is arguing, we see he clearly fails to understand how systemic racism works:
This racial gerrymandering ensures that the best-financed and most well-known black candidates will tend to project a political philosophy that resonates strongly with their district’s minority constituents but excludes positions and messages capable of appealing to statewide voters as a whole.
A “political philosophy that . . . excludes positions and messages capable of appealing to statewide voters” is code for “stuff that’s not so Black.” Why are issues that are of disproportionate intersest to minoritiy communities considered to be less important than those that play well with White audiences? If we consider that, by the very definition of systemic racism, White audiences will not appreciate the importance of such messages (because White folks think that “their” issues are not racial), asking Black politicians to abandon them so that they have a better chance at winning the votes of Whites is foolish. Majority-minority districts are created because of the well-understood truism that if they were not, there would be very few racial minorities elected to Congress. That lack of diversity would not serve the consitutuents or the nation well.
Toward the end of the piece, Conner presents us with this confusing piece of information:
Political statisticians understand the real reason there are so few black senators and governors is that voters statewide are far more politically diverse than the constituencies of “black” congressional districts.
Huh? Of course it is true that the typical voter in a majority-White district has different political beliefs than the typical voter in a majority-minority district, and those differences are not just about the voter’s race. Living in a community that is diverse or at least not overwhelmingly White 1) leads to different outlooks on life, and 2) is the result of decisions made with respect to different outlooks on life. Conner’s statement, however, seems to suggest that voters in majority-minority districts are politically monolithic, but voters in majority-White districts are open-minded and “diverse.” It’s a curious position at best.
Finally, Conner puts forward an assumption that is rooted in racism, though he does not seem to acknowledge it.
Majority-minority districts also capture black voters from surrounding congressional districts, leaving white congressmen with no incentive to craft messages appealing to African-American voters. This explains why Republicans receive so few votes from blacks in national elections.
Are we to believe that a district that is 95% White will, if it moves to 85% White, will elect a candidate who feels committed to fighting for his or her newest 10% of minority voters? Even if the district would move to 25% minority, there is no guarantee that a member would find it politically wise to spend considerable time advocating for issues that disproportionately affect that portion of the district. Because this is so, the Supreme Court has consistently held that race may be used as a consideration when district lines are drawn.
And this is not what explains why Republicans get so few votes from African Americans in national elections. Republicans do not win Black votes because they mostly fail to recognize that racism is real, that it is systemic (that is, having a Black friend does not end it), and that the position that it places people of color has real implications for the way policy should be considered and ultimately made. That is why Black Republicans also do not get Black votes; people of color, like Whites, are interested in solutions to problems that they see as relevant. When candidates do not acknowledge those problems, they will not get the votes. Having a handful of minorities in an otherwise overwhelmingly-White district is not a solution to helping White folks generally or White politicians specifically have a richer understanding of the issues that are of disproportionate interest to communities of color.
Today, as Conner notes, approximately 9% of the U.S. Congress is Black (compared to about 13% of the public). Without majority-minority districts, it is unlikely that the number would be much higher than that of the U.S. Senate (1% — 1 member) or U.S. governorships (2% — 1 governor). Women make up 17% of Congress, even though they comprise more than half of the population. We can’t redistrict to make female districts — even if we wanted to — but the result of this is clear: if we expect there to be sensitivity to and advocacy for populations that have historically been oppressed, we need to elect leaders who have those experiences. To do so, we need to make sure there are opportunities for election in communities that value such experience.
We get it. White folks voted for Obama. It’s a wonderful signal of potential for a post-racial America. Those who are optimistic need to be thoughtful about the reality, though, and not be lulled into relinquishing the very mechanisms that have allowed this progress to occur.
Majority-minority districts have given rise to a voice for African Americans and (to a lesser extent) Latinos in American circles of power, which has begun to lead to a normalization of their inclusion. White folks were not shocked by Obama’s talk about the realities of being Black in America (in his “A More Perfect Union” speech, for instance) because Black members of Congress have been issuing similar statements for years. Eliminating majority-minority districts would reduce the amont of racial minority members of Congress, which reduces the voice of African Americans in national politics. It is that voice that set the stage for Obama to walk across. If we want others to follow in his footsteps, tearing down the stage (or taking away the engineers and carpenters who built it) would be a terrible mistake.
The Heartland Institute uses the term “common sense” a lot in its rhetoric on the website (perhaps a hat tip to Thomas Paine), but TWIR readers know that, as scholars, we advocate sense that is other-than-common. We encourage our readers to dig deeper, think harder, and be more sophisticated than those who wish to persuade them (for whatever reason — intent is not important) of what seems obvious. There is nothing “common sensical” about racism; it is a very complex and interrelated system of institutions and beliefs upon which world power has been built. Appealing to “common sense” is an appeal to dumb us down. At TWIR, we push in precisely the opposite direction.
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