Court ruling begs question: How to empower minorities ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court decision in the North Carolina case puts on the table the question of how minorities can best attain political power commensurate with their numbers.

The 5-4 decision said, in effect, that race cannot be used as the sole reason for drawing a congressional district if the result is one that is "bizarre" -- in this case, one that meanders 160 miles across North Carolina under lines drawn to achieve a district in which blacks made up 55 percent of the voting age population.

The district, and another drawn under the same pressure from the Voting Rights Act and Justice Department, accomplished the purpose of electing two blacks among 12 members of Congress from North Carolina, a state in which blacks are 22 percent of the population.

Since the 1990 census, 26 such majority minority districts have been created across the country, with the result that last fall 13 more blacks and six more Hispanic-Americans won House races.

But the question is whether these districts will give minorities as much political clout as they might achieve as substantial minority blocs influencing non-minority congressmen.

There is often a political cost in establishing majority minority districts. In Alabama last year, for example, a heavily black district was created and elected a black Democrat, Earl Hilliard, to Congress for the first time since Reconstruction. But the formation of that district meant that another Democrat, incumbent Ben Erdreich, was beaten by a Republican after the black share of his constituency dropped from 32 percent to 10 percent.

Also, there is a lawsuit in the works in Alabama -- brought by Joe Reed, leader of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state's leading black political organization -- to create a second majority minority district. The plan would reduce the black share of the vote in Hilliard's district to just under 53 percent, not enough to put him in danger.

But in two other districts represented by white Democrats, the black share of the vote would drop from 26 percent to 9 percent and 25 percent to 13.3 percent, respectively. That would make both of those districts easier targets for Republicans, and it would be no surprise if the Democratic incumbents were less responsive on issues of prime concern to the black community. In such cases, says Al LaPierre, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party, "there's no pressure the black community can put on politically."

In other words, blacks in Alabama could gain a second representative in Congress but perhaps at the expense of far less influence with two other Democrats and possibly at the cost of losing one or two more seats to the Republicans.

For many black leaders these days, the choice is not difficult. They argue that relying on white liberals is not always the answer. During the 1992 campaign, for example, candidate Bill Clinton enlisted black support with the promise of delivery on black concerns once he took office. But the one bill with the highest priority to blacks so far this year -- the jobs-stimulus package -- went down in the Senate largely because of White House ineptitude.

Nor is the Congressional Black Caucus, with 38 solid Democratic votes, in a humor to accept the version of the economic plan passed by the Senate. Rather than rely on white liberal colleagues, the black legislators are threatening to use their own muscle to influence the conference report.

The problem for the blacks and other minorities is the limit on the direct influence they can hope to achieve. Even before the Supreme Court decision, the most they could hope to achieve would be 10 percent to 12 percent of the House, a share roughly equivalent to their share of the population.

The decision throws that in doubt, however. The issue now is how the lower courts will define what is an acceptable majority minority district as opposed to a "bizarre" one. There are already legal challenges to two other new districts, in Florida and Louisiana. And Michael Hess, the chief counsel for the Republican National Committee who entered the North Carolina case, foresees other legal tests.

The courts eventually will define what's acceptable. What they cannot answer is the question about how minorities can be empowered.

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