Race and Representation

Are the interests of African American and Latino voters necessarily advanced by maximizing the number of blacks and Hispanics who serve in legislative bodies? Recent experience with districting, and the dynamics of coalition politics, suggest that the answer is "not necessarily." The form of democratic representation can dramatically influence who participates, how votes count, and who exercises power. In much of the South, paradoxically, the "packing" of African American voters into "majority-minority" districts has increased the number of black elected officials but reduced the number of their political allies, leaving African American substantive interests less effectively represented overall. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of Latino and other minority populations has only complicated the question of how districting, representation, and coalition politics translates into effective political influence.

From Atlanta to Boston and many cities nationwide, a debate over race and redistricting is growing, fueled by landmark court decisions and the expiration in 2007 of key protections under the nation's Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, that landmark law itself is not in jeopardy, and it should continue to provide a badly needed avenue for minority voters to fight voter intimidation and uncounted ballots.

Whichever political party holds a majority in state legislatures and governors' houses has considerable latitude in drawing district lines within the parameters of the act. Racial redistricting is a partisan issue because the overwhelming majority of blacks and a significant percentage of Hispanics vote for the Democratic Party. This has caused Republicans to prefer an interpretation of the Voting Rights Act that allows for the creation of majority-minority districts that elect minority legislators while enhancing the Republican Party's broader electoral prospects (because heavily minority districts tend to dilute Democratic voting strength in other districts).

Under Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, minorities are guaranteed the right to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice, with the assumption being that the candidate of choice will be an ethnic minority from the largest minority group. Moreover, Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to clear their plans with the U.S. Department of Justice or to get a declaratory ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This key "preclearance" provision is designed to prevent minority-voter dilution or other changes that could adversely affect racial and language minorities. But what this means in practice has changed recently.

Until last year's 5-to-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Georgia v. Ashcroft, a "no-retrogression" standard that emerged from a previous court decision (1976's Beer v. United States) had been interpreted to mean that a state or locality could not reduce the minority percentages of a district or the number of safe majority-minority districts. The Court's 2003 ruling, however, challenged this principle by concluding that three types of districts can satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act: majority-minority districts, coalitional districts, and influence districts. Majority-minority districts are districts in which the election of a minority candidate is numerically all but assured. Coalition districts are those where any combination of voting blocs -- say, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and whites -- can join forces to elect a candidate of choice. And so-called influence districts are those with sizable minority populations below 50 percent, ones in which minority voters might be able to elect a candidate from their group -- or at least exercise considerable power over whomever is elected. While some minority activists and civil-rights attorneys frown on Georgia v. Ashcroft, the conservative majority chose this route because of widespread evidence that significant percentages of white Democrats in the South have been supportive of African American candidates, and because minority legislators in Georgia supported the unpacking of districts after realizing that the trade-off diluted tangible political power of racial minorities.

Apart from these considerations, dramatic demographic shifts are reshaping the political landscape for minority voters, too. As Hispanics have overtaken blacks as America's largest minority, potential conflicts have emerged, and it is not clear that African Americans and Latinos have the same interest in renewal of the act's Section 5. Because they are growing at a faster clip, for example, Latinos could well benefit from new configurations of majority-minority districts -- a strategy that will help them wield more clout in Congress. But for blacks, the same strategy has outlived its purpose.

After the last redistricting in 2000, population growth allowed for the creation of three majority-Hispanic districts in Florida, Arizona, and California. African Americans picked up only one additional seat. Latinos gained four new voting members, bringing their total in Congress to 24 (there are 37 black members).

Competition between African Americans and Hispanics is also likely to increase as black incumbents leave office. Already, a dozen African Americans represent districts where voting-age Latinos constitute more than 15 percent of the electorate. In California, more than 49 percent of Representative Maxine Waters' constituents are Hispanic, as are nearly 53 percent of Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald's; Representative Charles Rangel's district in New York City is close to 48 percent Latino.

Although Latinos living in majority black districts have complained in the past of a lack of responsiveness from black legislators, this may have changed given recent policy stances taken by members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- most notably, their support for liberal immigration policies that include amnesty for illegal immigrants. Studies by Harvard University economist George Borjas cite evidence suggesting that high levels of Mexican immigrants depress the wages of native-born blue-collar workers and result in declines in legal immigrants' incomes. Most directly affected by the competition with undocumented immigrants are low-skilled, poorly educated Americans -- namely, blacks, poor whites, and the descendants of legal immigrants. A narrow focus on the interests of African Americans, working-class whites, and legal immigrants would have caused these representatives to take a different position on this issue.

Because they are not solidly wedded to the Democrats, Hispanics are positioned to have considerable influence on both political parties. Unlike blacks, whose congressional representatives are all Democrats, Latinos have four Republican members of the Congress. This gives them much greater negotiating power. Blacks' unwavering support for Democrats has weakened their overall bargaining power, encouraged marginalization of their interests, and helped ensure that few resources are available for them. Until there are more blacks in the Republican Party, more blacks willing to vote as independents, or more effective coalition politics with other groups, the marginalization of black interests -- on issues from school vouchers to strict immigration policies -- will continue unabated.

Although it is often assumed that minority groups will work together to advance collective interests, such an assumption ignores the fact that racial minorities can have competing interests when it comes to immigration, jobs, bilingual education, the distribution of affirmative-action benefits, and electoral seats. In some areas of the country, in fact, these issues have so divided African Americans and Hispanics that they have been more likely to form coalitions with whites than with each other. The conflict between blacks and Latinos is a dirty little secret that Nicolas Vaca exposes in his book, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America.

At the same time, however, an examination of the objective conditions affecting both groups would suggest that they should have a strong interest in the attainment of common goals in areas related to health care, wage inequality, job creation, and welfare reform. And given the similar socioeconomic challenges facing blacks and Latinos, working together to elect politicians more amenable to shared policy preferences -- in this case, traditionally Democrats -- would seem to be the right avenue to follow.

Both groups lag behind whites when it comes to unemployment, education, poverty, and household income. Although the nation's unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, unemployment tops 10.2 percent among African Americans and 7.4 percent among Hispanics. And that's just the government's "official" unemployment picture, which reflects numbers of people actively looking for work. When we tally those who have given up and taken themselves out of the traditional job market, the numbers are staggering: For example, as many as 48 percent of black men in New York City are currently out of work, compared with 34 percent of Latino men and 24 percent of white men. Not coincidentally, a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that many of the new jobs created in today's economy were low-wage opportunities mostly benefiting newly arrived immigrants at the expense of other groups.

While African Americans are more likely than Hispanics to have a high-school education and a college degree, this achievement does not translate into lower poverty or greater earning power. At last count, the poverty rate stood at a stubborn 24.1 percent for blacks and 21.8 percent for Latinos -- triple the rate of 8 percent for non-Hispanic whites. A similar pattern emerges on median household income: Latinos (at $33,103) are doing slightly better than blacks ($29,026), but far worse than whites ($46,900) and Asians ($52,626). Statistics like these suggest that blacks and Latinos alike would benefit from more aggressive governmental action.

These socioeconomic disadvantages also play themselves out in the electoral arena in the form of lower participatory rates. Social scientists have long observed that people with higher levels of education and income are much more likely to vote. Here whites have a clear advantage over blacks and Hispanics. Although African Americans vote at a lower rate than whites, differences disappear once socioeconomic status is taken into consideration. When they do vote, low-income minorities run a greater risk of not having their votes counted.

In the 2000 presidential race, blacks had a 57 percent turnout rate compared with 62 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 45 percent for Latinos, and 43 percent for Asians. Blacks and Latinos were overrepresented among those whose votes were not counted. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Florida, where thousands of registered and eligible black voters were dropped from the rolls as part of an effort by the state to ensure the disenfranchisement of ex-felons. Elsewhere across the country there were tales of voter intimidation in which minority voters confronted more than butterfly ballots and hanging chads.

In a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act, various well-organized methods were used to discourage minorities from entering voting booths, including the presence of law-enforcement officers at the polls and outright refusal to accept certain documents certifying one's right to vote. Voting-rights violations against minorities continue to occur in parts of the country where local officials prefer a different set of candidates than the minority group. In theory, at least, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act offers a means to address such abuses of power. But Congress must decide by 2007 whether the preclearance provision of Section 5 should be renewed and whether the accompanying provision protecting language minorities is retained. (Section 2, meanwhile, faces no such potential expiration date.)

Today, blacks and Latinos constitute more than 25 percent of the population. If census trends continue, non-Hispanic whites will be roughly half of the population by the year 2050. In some areas of the country, whites are already a minority. The widely heralded growth in America's minority populations has led some minority politicians to argue that larger numbers will translate into greater political power, more opportunities to elect politicians of choice, and more equitable legislative packages. Substantial minority power, however, is not ensured. Even if minorities voted cohesively as a majority, they would still need the support of whites to govern as a progressive coalition. Much of the minority population is concentrated in 12 states, leaving 24 others more than 85 percent white. Census projections for 2025 indicate that minorities will constitute a majority in five states and a third in 13 others. Non-Hispanic whites will constitute less than 60 percent of the population in only 12 states. Greater minority power is also constrained by a lack of wealth that affects how easily one can penetrate and influence the political system through campaign donations and self-financed political candidacies.

Aside from these practical limitations, there is a big institutional barrier as well. Our constitutional structure limits the influence minorities can have as a voting bloc. For the foreseeable future, white Americans will continue to control much of the wealth in this country, they will vote at a higher rate, and their distribution in the population will continue to ensure them control over the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College. Even if minorities constituted a majority of the House of Representatives, their power would still be limited by the fact that legislation must pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president to become law. A white minority voting cohesively will always be able to exercise control over final legislative outcomes if whites' policy preferences differ from those of ethnic minorities.

The best strategy for racial and ethnic minorities to adopt, therefore, is one that minimizes identity politics and instead focuses on the attainment of policies and programs that will address common needs. Fortunately, many of the problems affecting poor minorities are common among poor whites as well. A political strategy that deracializes issues is more likely to succeed than one framed around race.

Surveys have shown that a large percentage of Americans support job creation, universal health care, education reform that expands parental choice, a minimum-wage increase, and immigration reform. On some of these issues the political parties are not responsive to the will of the people. It should be encouraging to minorities that the majority of white Americans, while opposing racial preferences, support outreach, nondiscrimination, and equal opportunity.

We are in trouble, though, unless Americans move away from narrowly defined identity politics. Strategies that ensure more support for race-neutral policy agendas should be preferred over those geared toward enhancing the perceived needs of any single racial or ethnic group. Indeed, beyond a certain point, a focus on narrowly defined group interests can become counterproductive. When leaders are responsive to the needs of the people, the race of the legislator becomes less important.

As a nation, we stand or fall together. The growing diversity of America demands coalitions and solutions that transcend the self-interest of racial solutions.