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Minority districts aren't working

Have parts of the Voting Rights Act actually thwarted black politicians in the modern era? That is a question that policymakers, judges and civil rights
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Have parts of the Voting Rights Act actually thwarted black politicians in the modern era? That is a question that policymakers, judges and civil rights advocates have debated for many years.

This week, Politico's Jonathan Martin surveyed several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on the question, finding some now oppose the way the VRA has helped to draw what amount to "minority" House districts.

"While black-majority districts all but guarantee African-American representation, they also have the effect of stamping the members, fairly or not, as simply representing black interests," Martin reports.

That makes for safe seats, but not launching pads for higher office, when a Member of Congress must appeal to a broader electorate. "It’s a less than preferable training ground," Martin argues, "for a politician who wishes to run statewide among a more diverse electorate."

CBC veterans, like former SNCC chairman John Lewis and former majority whip Jim Clyburn, are strong supporters of the VRA but are skeptical of its application to minority districts.

It's not lost on observers of black politics that while black members of the House have struggled to win statewide, black pols who have achieved statewide offices usually get there without a stint in the House. Massachusetts' Deval Patrick made it to the governor's mansion that way, for example, and Barack Obama was able to cast himself as a transcendent statewide candidate partly because he had never tended to the politics of a narrower district. By that logic, in fact, Obama is lucky that he lost his quixotic primary challenge to Bobby Rush, a former black panther who represented a majority-black district on Chicago's South Side. That was just 14 years ago. A win could have unleashed different pressures on the young politician and, according to Martin's theory, it might have unfairly "stamped" him as a narrower figure.

Questioning the results and utility of these districts is not an academic exercise, either.

First, the lessons can inform how diversity advocates and black pols try to build political power. Take an ambitious candidate like New Jersey's Cory Booker, who has seemed to want statewide office for a long time. He has assiduously built toward that goal without pursuing a minority House district. (As a mayor, he can run on a record in his city, while Members of Congress are forced to run on a slew of votes without results, including symbolic and divisive ones.)

Second, and more broadly, the Supreme Court is considering overruling many planks of civil rights law, from affirmative action to voting regulations. The court could look at shifts in voting patterns--or even the views of black candidates themselves--and change how districts are drawn.

So far, however, the court has reviewed the Voting Rights Act with a focus on state's rights, not the statute's animating goal of addressing systemic racism in American life and law. So this term, the VRA's federal power to review local voting regulations could be overturned--a step that would reduce oversight of rules that may discriminate. The deeper questions about what kind of districts are fair and representative, given today's world and what we've learned, have been left for another day.