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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Joe Brown Columns
COLUMN

Minorities suffer when districts drawn by race

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A few weeks ago in this space, I wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately would have to decide on the redistricting lawsuit that threatened to put a wrench in Florida’s upcoming elections. The judge in the case pretty much let Florida’s congressional districts stand, even Rep. Corrine Brown’s racial gerrymandered 5th District, which meanders from Jacksonville to Orlando picking up black voters along the way.

Now it looks as if the nation’s highest court will weigh in on the constitutionality of drawing voting districts to maximize the likelihood of electing a black candidate to office. The case before the justices involves a state Senate district in Alabama held by one Quinton Ross, who has had a safe seat since 2002 with a voting-age population that is 72 percent black. He ran unopposed in his last two elections.

There used to be a term for such deliberate racial policies: segregation. Since the 1990 Census, and using the Voting Rights Act as cover, the practice of packing black voters has been given such altruistic terms like “enhancing minority representation” and allowing blacks to elect “candidates of their choice.” Other than the black elected officials who benefit from it, the biggest supporters of this have been Republicans. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons the GOP controls the House of Representatives.

According to USA Today, Alabama’s legislative maps “are headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Alabama Democrats and African Americans will make an unusual request: that black voting strength in majority-black districts should be diluted. When it comes to making about three dozen legislative districts easy for blacks to get elected, they say, enough is enough.”

A Supreme Court decision striking down racial gerrymandering could affect congressional and legislative districts in Florida. Locally, it could invalidate the 14th District, held by Rep. Kathy Castor, which snakes from east Tampa to south St. Petersburg in a blatant effort to pack Democrats and/or black voters. As a result, Castor, a Tampa Democrat, ran unopposed for re-election, as did Gus Bilirakis, whose district starts in northern Pinellas County and enters Pasco to pick up Republican votes.

With Rep. David Jolly having no major-party opponent in November, Pinellas voters will have little or no reason to concern themselves with upcoming congressional elections. This shows that other than fairness, the biggest casualty of all this political and racial gerrymandering is competitive races, which makes democracy a victim.

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Constitutionality aside, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the movement that resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, was more concerned with the morality of picking candidates based on race. In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” King declared that “any program that elects all black candidates simply because they are black and rejects all white candidates simply because they are white is politically unsound and morally unjustifiable.”

King urged that “we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have the moral and ethical principles we can applaud with an enthusiasm that enables us to rally support for them based on a confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards.”

Which makes me wonder if he were around today what King would say about gerrymandering based on race?

Without making allowances for race, I’ve been told many times, there will be fewer minorities in Congress and the Legislature. I agree, but minority voters will have greater influence in more districts. As it stands now, racial gerrymandering has increased minority representation, but has also diminished minority influence because representatives in other areas don’t have to listen to their concerns. A voter has more power when a candidate courts them instead of ignoring them or taking them for granted.

The Supreme Court eventually will decide if racially gerrymandering is constitutional. King thought such a practice was immoral. Those who support it seriously need to ponder whether in this day and age it’s practical.

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