Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Texas mid-decade redistricting case, a dispute with far reaching implications on how state legislatures will determine the lines of Congressional and state legislative districts going forward. The law surrounding the drawing of districts lines has a long and complicated history since the days in the mid-1960's when the Court declared the "one person, one vote" doctrine that demands equality in the size of districts. Court made law is difficult at best to deal with and redistricting law is further complicated by the Voting Rights Act, which as it is interpreted by the Justice Department and the Courts in relation to redistricting, amounts to little more than Affirmative Action for elections in America, and like all affirmative action programs, actually disadvantages the minorities it is supposedly designed to help.
One aspect of the VRA interpretation has been the creation of so-called "majority-minority" districts, Congressional and/or state legislative districts drawn in such a way as to create districts where the population is made up primarily of a particular minority, usually a racial minority, such as Hispanics or African American. To be sure some districts are naturally majority-minority districts simply as a result of the close population, for example Charlie Rangel's 15th District in New York, which is comprised mostly of Harlem neighborhoods. However, many states have drawn majority minority districts in furtherance of a goal of allowing minorities to elect "a candidate of their choice," which should be read as a minority candidate.
As a result of these legal interpretations, a number of majority-minority districts created in the 1980's and 1990's yielded a large influx of minority Representatives in those decades, generally to a positive impact on national politics. But the problem is that these Representatives, despite their years of experience have not been able to make the leap to the next level of governmental power, whether that be moving from the state legislature to the U.S. Congress, or the U.S. Senate or a governor's chair, or even the Presidency/Vice Presidency. Some will blame racism, but I don't buy such charges as the foundation of why otherwise talented people cannot make the leap. Rather, the reason can be blamed on the very VRA by-product which provided them with the opportunity to be a Representative, majority minority districts, has denied them the skill and experience necessary to build a winning coalition at the next level.
Politics is a rough and tumble blood sport, with a few winners and a great many losers. A political campaign is a test of stamina, smarts, and Herculean task of convincing a large number of people who do not know you personally to trust you enough to vote you into office. The latter is the toughest test of leadership ability extant. Successful politicians build winning coalitions as a path to election. Those coalitions, in most districts, are an amalgamation of interest groups, voting blocs, and sheer force of charisma. In short, winning coalitions represent a diverse group of people. Once elected, the talented politician must continue to tend to the care and feeding of that coalition while, at the same time representing the whole district. Hopefully, a good politician and elected official will be able to expand on her winning coalition over time.
However, when looking at majority minority district, the rough and tumble of politics is short-circuited by a racial identification, practically short-hand for worth as a candidate. Representatives of majority-minority districts are not incapable of being good Representatives, in fact many are very talented politicians with one major shortcoming--they don't have the political campaign experience necessary to build winning coalitions in a district larger than or distinct from their majority-minority district.
The primary determinant, in most cases, of who wins in a majority-minority district is based almost exclusively on racial identification. Thus in a majority black district, the determination of who wins is dependent on whether the candidate is black or not. Thus, because a candidate is of the dominant racial category, he/she need not build as large or diverse a winning coalition, it is assumed by everyone inside and outside the district that the minority candidate is, per se, capable of representing that racial minority. (This feature also has some implications for a representative democracy but that is another post all together).
So a representative, whether state or U.S., who represents a majority minority district has little incentive to build a district-wide winning coaltion beyond the dominant racial group. After all, the candidate who wins the "race" primary almost invariably wins the election. Thus, when it comes time to step up to the next rung on the government ladder, these candidates have not had to run the political gauntlet inherent in the winning of other, non-majority minority districts. (This can obviously be said of districts so overwhelming partisan as well, but again, a topic for another post). The "political combat" skills are therefore atrophied to the point where they cannot survive in an atmosphere distinct from a majority minority district.
Majority minority districts, in short, prevents candidates cultivated in such a climate from being the best politician they can be. They are brought forth in an environment artificially free of many of the competitive obstacles present in other districts. The reduced competitive level, remember brought about by a desire to have minorities elect a candidate of their choice, dooms those candidates to that level of government and not much more. The majority minority-raised candidates, when faced with competition brought up in a rougher "league," are disadvantaged because the message and politics which brought them to their current station generally does not play well beyond the insular group which first elected them. Voters not of that district or racial group tend to look at such candidates with a health dose of skepticism about their ability to lead beyond the majority minority district.
If minorities truly want to succeed in politics, they must compete in full contact politics, without the artificially created majority minority districts. Minorities must compete on a playing field beyond the majority minority districts if they are to succeed on any playing field that has not been parternalistically created for their race. Thus, the continuing insistence on majority minority districts will result not in greater diversity in our elected ranks, but in a kind of quota system. Allowed to continue, the majority minority district schemes will result in a relatively fixed number of "Hispanic" or "Black" or "Asian" seats, as if the only determinant of a districts representative is the racial identification of the candidate, which sounds awfully similar to the results of Affirmative Action programs--a set aside for those groups who had experienced discrimination in the past.
The consequences of this Affirmative Action for Elections is the maintenance of that quota of majority minority districts, and a class of politicians who are not forced to build their coalition building skills to move to the next step. The loss will not just be that of the minority communities, but of the entire nation, because we continue to classify certain races, despite our noble rhetoric, as somehow incapable of competing on the same level as the big boys.