Despite a USA Today/Gallup poll showing Americans disapproved of Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate, the Senate accepted him for the seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Fifty-one percent had said the Senate should “block Burris from filling the seat.”
This would appear to be a reaction against Blagojevich, not Burris, much less blacks in general, but it does raise an interesting question: Why aren’t there more black senators and governors? The answer is not what you might think.
Obama’s election clearly confirms that majority-white America is comfortable with a president of African descent. Then why only one black in the Senate? There are 39 African-American members of the U.S. Congress, not including non-voting delegates in places such as the Virgin Islands and District of Columbia. That’s about 9 percent of Congress, for a minority group comprising 12 percent of the U.S. population.
The real cause of this paucity of blacks in Congress is not racism, however, but racial gerrymandering, in which black voters are concentrated in congressional districts where blacks predominate, instead of designing districts to follow more natural geographical and institutional boundaries. Race-based gerrymandering — supported by national Democrats — has created 39 congressional districts that are predominantly (more than 25 percent) African-American. In fact, 25 of the 39 districts where blacks now have congressional seats have outright black majority populations.
The axiom behind this gerrymandering is that only “safe,” predominantly black districts could guarantee the election of blacks to Congress, because of protracted racism among white and Hispanics voters. While such manipulation of voting district boundaries is ostensibly intended to favor blacks politically, it actually has the opposite effect.
The 39 congressional districts with black representatives contain the highest-profile black elected officials in each of the 50 states. These seats become the natural place from which to recruit black candidates for statewide office. The problem is that their districts are not representative of the state as a whole, because of the deliberate elimination of all those who are not traditional liberal Democratic voters.
This racial gerrymandering ensures that the best-financed and most well-known black candidates will tend to project a political philosophy that resonates strongly with their district’s minority constituents but excludes positions and messages capable of appealing to statewide voters as a whole.
Political statisticians understand the real reason there are so few black senators and governors is that voters statewide are far more politically diverse than the constituencies of “black” congressional districts.
When African Americans are elected to the House from majority-black, heavily gerrymandered congressional districts in big cities in the North and rural areas of the South, they’re unlikely to have the wide appeal necessary to win statewide office.
Majority-minority districts also capture black voters from surrounding congressional districts, leaving white congressmen with no incentive to craft messages appealing to African-American voters. This explains why Republicans receive so few votes from blacks in national elections.
State legislators charged with redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census should create congressional districts offering racial and cultural diversity, in which all potential candidates will have to base their appeals upon the content of their character instead of the philosophical dictates of party fealty.
Ralph W. Conner is local legislation manager at the Heartland Institute
This op-ed was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times.