Friday, March 5, 2010

The Future of Majority Minority Districts

Last Friday, Duke Law School hosted a conference on the future of redistricting in the United States. The last panel of the day debated the future of the majority-minority district. However one comes out on that question -- whether these districts are either necessary or no longer needed, even unconstitutional -- should be informed by the successes and failures of James Fields, a black representative elected by a southern white electorate, and J. Raymond Jones, Harlem's longtime political boss.

In a recent post, Guy posed two questions in response to Mr. Fields' experience representing a southern white constituency: What is the cost to black elected officials of running in white districts in the South; and, is the case of Mr. Fields proof of the declining need for majority black and Latino districts? In his post, Guy examined the first question. In this post, I explore the second.

Mr. Fields ran for office in Cullman County, a county of 81,000 people yet only 401 blacks. This is the county known in Birmingham, Alabama as "the racist white bigot county." This is also the same Alabama where 88% of whites voted for John McCain over President Obama in the last election. This is a figure that David Bositis, a well known political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, attributes, "all of it to racial bias."

In sum, this is not only not a majority black district, but as far from it as an electorate can be. Yet Mr. Fields won election with 59% of the vote, a remarkable figure by any metric. This raises the immediate question of, how was he able to do it?

As the article illustrates, Mr. Fields personalized the election. He broke down "the traditional Southern political narrative." Accordingly, he was not a black candidate, he was a Southern candidate. For example, he does not have an office in the county, but rather, "he comes to you. Most of the county seems to know his cellphone number." He is a black man only until he starts talking to his constituents, "whereupon he really seems just like another Southerner." Most telling are the words of one Rickey Peek, a used-auto-parts dealer who watches Fox news, listens to Rush Limbaugh and hates President Obama. Here is what Mr. Peek has to say about Mr. Fields: "James is not like any black man that I know. He’s just different. He just don’t have that mentality, anybody owes him anything. He just gets out and works and helps people, earns what he gets. If James wasn’t black, you’d think he was white. That doesn’t sound right, but you know what I mean."

What this means, according to Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn historian, is that "personalism can trump racism." This is also the view of Congressman Arthur Davis, who says that in the Alabama of today "race is not an insurmountable obstacle." In fairness, this view is not universally shared. But the election of Mr. Fields is no less significant. It is nothing short of remarkable.

Standing alone, Mr. Fields symbolizes the America that supporters of the Voting Rights Act envisioned over forty years ago, a polity where race would ultimately cease being the driving force in Southern elections. This is also the America that justices on the U.S. Supreme Court often uphold as the aspiration of the Act. Supporters of the Act today argue, to my mind convincingly, that we are not there yet. It might appear, if Mr. Fields example is any indication, that we might be closer than generally presumed.

After reading about Mr. Fields, I subsequently came upon the example of Raymond Jones, documented in the same edition of the Times yet in a separate section. The contrast is remarkable. Mr. Fields highlights the exciting possibilities that a competitive South may bring. Mr. Jones, in contrast, highlights the dangers of power and incumbency, the very things that are often established by safe districts.

Mr. Jones, also known as "the Harlem Fox," is the legendary Democratic leader from New York who nurtured the political careers of many New York politicians, including Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, and David Patterson. The last week has not been kind to this group, with recent revelations leading Governor Patterson to announce that he is not seeking reelection and a House ethics panel admonishing Congressman Rangel for recent actions, with more inquiries soon to follow.

I could not help reading these two articles as one piece on the state of Black politics and, more specifically, black politicians. Now, I understand that the goal of the VRA, and particularly section 2, is to afford black and Latino voters the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. I get that. But these two examples place much stress on defenders of the VRA to defend the use of race in the 21st century. This is not to say that such a defense is not possible. Rather, it is to say that such a defense would be difficult.

At the very least, supporters of the Voting Rights Act better hope that Justice Kennedy does not read the Times.