Voters: black, white and tan Election surprises: Black victories in majority white districts; soaring Latino power.


THE MOST STUNNING result of the Nov. 5 election was the triumph of all five African American members of the House of Representatives who ran in districts that had been redrawn to create white majorities. Close behind was the rise of Latino voting power, the key factor in President Clinton's victory in Florida and Arizona and in several congressional contests.

These outcomes were somewhat contradictory. In the first case, white Southerners crossed racial lines to vote for black incumbents. In the second, Hispanic voters rallied as a racial bloc to the Democrats because of punitive Republican attitudes toward immigrants.

Yet nothing is written in black, white or tan in American voting patterns. The surprise victories of Democratic Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Sheila Jackson Lee in Texas, of Sanford Bishop and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia and Corrine Brown in Florida were as much due to the power of incumbency as to white tolerance. Precinct breakdowns showed that racial voting was still strong in all five districts. But it also demonstrated that Supreme Court decisions banning redistricting strictly on racial factors did not portend "a return to all-white government" as Deval Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, had warned.

There is a big difference between the original thrust of the Voting Rights Act to protect the suffrage of minority groups and later amendments that led to gerrymandered "minority-majority districts." The original core goals of the VRA are as entrenched as ever. What is at issue is whether race should be the dominant issue, which in our opinion is a bad idea, or whether it should be just one of several important factors. Thus, Maryland's two black majority districts pass muster while those in half a dozen southern states did not.

Overall, however, the Democratic Party did quite well in this year's election in solidifying its hold on both African American and Hispanic American voters. The former is part of a tradition going back to the New Deal; the latter is primarily due to the GOP's efforts in trend-setting California to deny government benefits to immigrants -- a blunder that brought out the fast-growing Latino vote for President Clinton and his political allies.

Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp recognized the danger to his party if it continues to alienate minority groups. As whites lose majority status in the next century, as this country becomes solely a nation of minorities, perhaps the vision of a color-blind America will be more politically compelling.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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