For 30 years I have fought for election districts that are fair to people of color and make it possible for everyone to participate equally. I’ve filed lawsuits challenging districts drawn by Democrats and districts drawn by Republicans. At various times in our history, Democrats and Republicans alike have built barriers for racial minorities. But a new bill before Congress, the Fair Representation Act—a comprehensive new approach that rethinks our approach to districting and voting itself—offers a real way to transcend the redistricting wars.
When North Carolinians elected Eva Clayton and Mel Watt to Congress in 1992, they were the first African Americans to represent the state in Washington, DC, since George White in 1901. Their victories were made possible by the groundbreaking civil-rights cases won by Julius Chambers, one of my mentors, and because the Reagan administration helped push for the creation of majority-minority districts when the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in the early 1980s. After the creation of many such districts in 1991, the number of people of color in the US House increased from 37 to 59.
The constitutionality of these districts was challenged almost immediately in what became Shaw v. Reno—a case brought originally as a partisan gerrymander claim by a white Democrat who had grown accustomed to having a member of Congress who came from his community. Democrat Mel Watt didn’t fit that bill. In general, Democratic parties throughout the South counted on the reliable votes of African Americans, and distributed them throughout as many districts as possible.
As voting remained racially polarized, and few Southern whites were willing to vote for black candidates, this toxic combination of race, geography, and districting made these majority-minority districts crucial if African Americans were to have any representation in Washington at all. I spent the first part of my career trying to convince courts that it was important to protect minority voting rights. I found myself defending, again and again, and ultimately unsuccessfully, some of the gains Julius Chambers achieved.
More recently, Republicans in the South have cynically used the Voting Rights Act to justify redistricting for their political advantage. The state legislative maps and congressional maps drawn in North Carolina in 2011 represent some of the worst racial gerrymanders that we’ve ever seen in this country—and last month, the Supreme Court agreed.
During our litigation, it came out that the state Senate president who helped draw these maps went to then-Congressman Watt and tried to convince him that the majority-minority seats they drew were good for the black community. But it was easy to see what was going on: The purpose was to pack as many African American voters into two districts so as to diminish their influence everywhere else.