Seven blacks in the Nevada state legislature may not sound like a big deal — except that they give the Silver State the unexpected honor of having elected the most racially progressive legislature in the country, compared to its population. Nevada is less than 7 percent black, but its legislature is 11 percent black (seven of 63 members).
What’s especially interesting is that none of these seven lawmakers comes from a majority black district, according to a recent article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (See the chart at the bottom of the page. Also read a related editorial on the subject here — it’s unsigned, but the author is Rick Henderson.)
The political success of black Nevadans is a compelling rebuttal to the claims of liberal civil-rights activists, who say that black candidates face enormous racial hurdles if they can’t run for office in majority-black voting districts. For years, groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP have done everything in their power to bring racial preferences to the voting booth, in the form of gerrymandered political districts drawn with the intent guaranteeing the election of minority candidates. The Supreme Court has frowned on this practice, but has not totally overturned it — and the number of majority-minority districts has steadily increased over the last couple of decades.
In Nevada, however, black pols have flourished in the absence of these peculiar arrangements. Nevada’s record even puts to shame liberal states that probably like to regard themselves as bastions of racial tolerance. California has 120 members in its state legislature, but only six of them are black; Massachusetts has 200 legislators, but only seven of them are black.
Nevada isn’t the only state where black candidates have done well: They have strong contingents in the Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio legislatures, too. Where they haven’t succeeded — and this is true almost everywhere — is in statewide elections. And the rise of majority-minority districts is a big part of the reason why.
That’s because candidates who win in these environments aren’t forced to create multiracial coalitions that include whites. These districts generate the likes of Maxine Waters, the grievance-spewing congresswoman from Los Angeles, not Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia who was elected to office with substantial white support. For black politicians, therefore, the path to statewide success does not wind through gerrymandered districts. The next black candidate to win a statewide election is much more likely to hail from Nevada than from, say, one of the tangled congressional districts of North Carolina or Texas.
There will always be majority-minority districts, as long as there’s residential segregation. Yet the civil-rights establishment hurts minority political aspirations when it embraces race-driven redistricting; its strategy may produce a few extra legislators, but few if any of them will ever become governors or senators.
Republicans, unfortunately, often have been strong supporters of racial gerrymandering, in the belief that packing as many blacks as possible into the fewest number of districts essentially “whitens” the other ones, and thereby makes them friendlier to the GOP. This is a clever tack, but it does come with a high cost. Majority-minority districts are usually strongholds of extremism, and they make the Democratic party more liberal than it otherwise would be. Because Republicans often don’t even run candidates in these districts, it puts many blacks in the position of not seeing Republicans ask for their votes — until presidential nominees do. Despite this, Republican strategists continue to scratch their heads over why so few blacks voted for George W. Bush two years ago, and wonder whether they put enough African American on display at their Philadelphia convention.
The lesson of Nevada is a simple one: Blacks can succeed without special help — in the voting booth, and in many other areas as well.