Barack Obama has become the first African-American with a serious chance to be elected President of the United States. And he had already made history before that, by becoming in 2004 only the third black elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. (The other two were Edward Brooke, elected in Massachusetts in 1966 and 1972, and Carol Moseley Braun, elected in Illinois in 1992. In addition, two blacks have been elected governors of states, Douglas Wilder in Virginia in 1989 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2006.) But Obama’s rise points to a puzzle that begs explanation.
Blacks currently hold 38 districts in the U.S. House of Representatives, 9 percent of the total, and about 600 seats in state legislatures, about 8 percent of the total. That is below, but not all that far below, the 12 percent that is the black percentage of the population. But in the 722 elections for U.S. senator and the 579 elections for governor held since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks have been elected in only four of those contests, which works out to just three-tenths of 1 percent. What explains this discrepancy between the percentage of blacks elected in legislative districts and the percentage elected to the highest statewide offices?
One might ascribe the gap to white racism. No state has a black majority, and in the state with the highest black percentage, Mississippi, the 63 percent of whites vote overwhelmingly one way and the 37 percent of blacks vote overwhelmingly the other way in high-visibility elections. That has been true not only in general elections, but also in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama.
Another explanation might be that blacks do not run for major statewide offices very often. The list of serious black competitors for governor or senator since 1965 is not much longer than the list of those elected. The most recent example is Congressman Harold Ford, who won 48 percent of the vote in Tennessee in 2006. Other examples include Senators Brooke and Moseley Braun, who won large percentages of the vote but were defeated for re-election in 1978 and 1998, respectively. As long ago as 1972, Congressman Andrew Young was elected in a majority-white district in Georgia. The impressive showing of Senator Obama in the 2008 presidential primaries and the poll results that show him running roughly even with John McCain—and about as strongly as Hillary Clinton—are evidence that white Americans are ready to vote for black candidates.
But the most persuasive explanation for the discrepancy is that the same law which has increased, at least marginally, the percentage of blacks elected in congressional and legislative districts has also affected the career paths of black politicians in a way that has reduced, and perhaps reduced a great deal, the percentage of blacks elected governor and senator. That law is the Voting Rights Act of 1965—or at least the prevailing interpretation of amendments to the law passed in the 1980s.
The original Voting Rights Act was the most immediately successful civil rights law in American history. Before 1965 blacks were effectively prevented from voting in many parts of the South. By the time of the 1968 presidential elections, blacks were voting in practically every part of the South, and by the early 1970s black candidates were being elected to city councils, state legislatures and even to Congress in appreciable numbers. That was, in part at least, because the provisions of the original Voting Rights Act were draconian—and appropriately so—to overcome the mechanisms and practices and threats of violence by which white Southern officials and citizens prevented black Americans from exercising the right to vote.
Those draconian provisions are no longer necessary. Except perhaps for the most isolated of situations, the political will to block blacks from voting no longer exists. Indeed, some voting-rights complaints today allege that black officials are preventing whites from voting in some districts. In any case, bipartisan majorities in Congress have voted to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, most recently in 2006, and, if it is a nuisance in its requirement that officials in covered jurisdictions clear any changes in voting procedures with the Justice Department, it may still be useful to redress grievances in the isolated cases in which the right to vote is denied because of race.
The damage has been done not by the original law but by the prevailing interpretation of the 1980s amendments. As Abigail Thernstrom documented in Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (1987), this interpretation holds that the Voting Rights Act requires maximizing the number of “majority-minority” (that is, majority-black and majority-Hispanic) congressional and legislative districts when it comes time to redraw the lines.11.
Demographic realities prevent the creation of majority-Asian-and-Pacific-Islander and majority-Native-American congressional districts, though it might be possible to create such legislative districts in some states. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who is of native Hawaiian descent, has proposed lumping Pacific Islanders with Native Americans rather than Asians, which would decrease the possible number of such districts in his home state. This interpretation is problematic, as Thernstrom argues persuasively, and it has not been squarely endorsed by the courts. But it has been embraced by politicians in the redistricting cycles following the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
For understandable political reasons, alliances of white Republicans and black Democrats in some Southern states have passed redistricting plans maximizing the number of majority-black districts. The black Democrats get a larger Black Caucus; the Republicans elect more legislators in districts adjacent to the majority-black districts because they have been drained of heavily Democratic black voters. Such a coalition prevailed in Florida in the 1990 cycle against the leadership of the Democratic majority in the legislature; a similar plan was adopted in the state in the 2000 cycle, when Republicans controlled the legislature and held the governorship. In other cases, ingenious Democratic redistricters have been able to both maximize the number of majority-black (or near-majority) districts and serve the interests of the Democratic Party. This was the case in North Carolina in the 2000 redistricting cycle, proving that Democrats as well as Republicans could serve their partisan interests by maximizing the number of majority-minority districts, provided they were deft enough.
Other legislators have chosen to maximize the number of majority-minority districts in order to avoid litigation from civil rights groups. A redistricting plan that does so is likely to be cleared by the Justice Department and is not likely to be challenged in court by civil rights organizations. However, there are risks here, too. In the 1990 cycle, redistricters in North Carolina created a second majority-black district by linking black neighborhoods in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and other cities by narrow geographic corridors not much wider than the lanes of Interstate 85. A North Carolina citizen sued, and Shaw v. Reno went up to the U.S. Supreme Court five times. The key votes in those cases were cast by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who seemed to be swayed by aesthetic judgments about the shape of the district in question (she quoted descriptions in The Almanac of American Politics, of which I am co-author). The judicial rule seemed to be that if the shape of the district was too grotesque to pass muster with Justice O’Connor, it was not permissible. Now that Justice O’Connor has retired, it is not clear what the judicial standard is, but practical-minded legislators drawing redistricting plans after the 2010 Census will probably try to draw the maximum number of majority-minority districts possible without creating really weird-looking ones.
How has maximizing the number of majority-minority districts affected blacks with high political ambitions? It has provided more opportunities to win congressional and legislative seats by appealing to black voters and black voters only. And it has given them incentives to take positions on issues and to adopt political rhetoric that would be unattractive to most voters in statewide races for governor and senator.
After all, majority-black districts are heavily Democratic, and their legislators are effectively chosen in Democratic primaries, in which the percentage of black voters is often even higher than in the general election. In most such districts white voters can be ignored without political penalty. (Though not quite always: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was defeated in Democratic primaries in the majority-black 4th congressional district of Georgia in both 2002 and 2006 in part because white primary voters—many of them affluent professionals, a significant percentage Jewish—voted heavily against her while black voters were split.) The political incentives are typically to lean Left on issues and to stress racial identity. Doing so reduces the risk of primary challenges and allows a legislator to accumulate seniority and attain important committee positions.
The rewards can be great. John Conyers, who won his first Democratic primary in a new majority-black district in Detroit in 1964 by 208 votes, is now Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Charles Rangel, who challenged a weakened Adam Clayton Powell successfully in Harlem in 1970, is now Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. They have had to wait some time for those positions until Democrats won a majority in the House, but they have reaped considerable political rewards.
But the political course taken by such members pretty much rules out winning highly visible statewide offices. (Richard Austin, whom Conyers beat in 1964, had a more moderate image and was elected Michigan Secretary of State from 1970 to 1990; he never seriously contemplated running for governor or senator.) This, more than white voters’ alleged reluctance to vote for black candidates, accounts for the very small number of serious black candidates for governor and senator in the generation and a half since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Politics is a business that requires large investments of time and psychic energy in the hope of future reward. I am convinced from some forty years of observation that most politicians get up at five o’clock in the morning to campaign, canoodle with donors at fundraisers, endure tedious questions from constituents, sit through committee meetings beyond normal people’s endurance, and forego any reasonable expectation of personal privacy—all because they have some thought in the back of their minds that, if things go well and fall into place, they can some day, perhaps against the odds and almost everybody’s expectations, become governor or senator or (they are careful to confide this to no one, probably not even their spouses) president. Or they will be selected to balance someone’s ticket as vice president and then something regrettable—better to glide over the specifics—will happen to the president, and then….
Of course most of these things never happen and arguably could never happen. But then there are the cases of Spiro Agnew and Jimmy Carter and Dan Quayle, men who at the start of their careers no one (but perhaps themselves) thought would win national office. But then each of them did.
Black politicians have been encouraged by the prevailing interpretation of the Voting Rights Act and, in many cases, by their own belief that whites would never vote for them, to forego such ambitions. They have aimed instead at legislative leadership positions or the mayoralty of central cities, and in some cases they have succeeded handsomely: Consider not only Conyers and Rangel, but also Willie Brown, Speaker of the California Assembly from 1980 to 1995 and Mayor of San Francisco from 1995 to 2003.
The interesting thing is that we are now seeing black politicians who, like their white counterparts, seem to have ambitions that give them incentives to compile records and adopt personas that will appeal to majority-white constituencies. Barack Obama is the obvious case in point. He won election to a 76 percent black state Senate district in 1996 by the old-fashioned expedient of challenging the validity of signatures on the petitions of his Democratic primary opponents and getting them removed from the ballot. His district also included the majority-white, left-wing Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago. He made sure his course in office was acceptable to these constituents, as well as to those in the virtually all-black South Side parts of the district. He lost two to one when he challenged an incumbent black congressman in a 70 percent black district in 2000, but he established a persona that made him a serious competitor, and when his leading opponents in the primary and general elections were discredited on personal grounds, he became a big winner in the 2004 Senate election.
Other relatively young black politicians seem to have taken similar courses. Harold Ford, Jr., elected at age 26 in a 59 percent black district in Memphis that was represented by his father for 22 years, compiled a relatively moderate voting record, obviously with a view toward running for statewide office, and nearly achieved it in 2006. Artur Davis, elected at age 35 in a 62 percent black Alabama district after beating an incumbent plagued by corruption charges, seems to be taking a similar course. So does Cory Booker, elected mayor of 55 percent-black Newark on his second try in 2005. My guess is that each of these politicians, like most white politicians, harbors secret ambitions for national office, and that each is conducting himself accordingly. We tend to scorn political ambition, yet the ambition for national office tends to temper incentives to appeal to the political extremes, whether extremes of black, white or any other kind of voters. The Obama candidacy and the careers of politicians like Ford, Davis and Booker suggest that such ambitions are tempering in some important cases the incentive to appeal to extremes created by the prevailing interpretation of the Voting Rights Act.
The Obama candidacy, successful or not, has another important lesson to offer. Over the past twenty years, I have on various occasions urged talented young black professionals to run for office in heavily non-black constituencies. The response has usually been, “I couldn’t possibly win there; whites wouldn’t vote for me.” I have thought just the opposite, that most white Americans have been yearning to vote for a black candidate who is roughly in line with them on the issues and who seems to have the character and ability required for office. The response to the Obama candidacy has reinforced my view. Polls show, for example, that most black voters in South Carolina (where there was an early contest and many polls) and in other states were not committed to Obama up through December 2007, but that, after his victory in notoriously almost-all-white Iowa and his near-victory in notoriously almost-all-white New Hampshire, they flocked to his candidacy. Interviews suggested they had not believed, before Iowa and New Hampshire, that he could win among whites and that, when the results suggested he could, they decided to support him.
The Obama candidacy is thus doing suddenly what the career paths of politicians like Ford, Davis and Booker seemed to be doing incrementally—showing that black politicians can make political careers in the national arena, beyond the ghetto to which the prevailing interpretation of the Voting Rights Act amendments of the 1980s has seemed to consign them. That’s a good thing. No law, no matter how much misinterpreted, should be allowed to keep good men and women down.
Demographic realities prevent the creation of majority-Asian-and-Pacific-Islander and majority-Native-American congressional districts, though it might be possible to create such legislative districts in some states. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who is of native Hawaiian descent, has proposed lumping Pacific Islanders with Native Americans rather than Asians, which would decrease the possible number of such districts in his home state.