James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo, has supported Swain’s findings. Campbell found that in 1994, over 60 percent of congressional districts in which minorities were the majority ranked in the bottom quintile in levels of voter turnout. The most recently published review of the scholarly literature on this subject is a 2007 article by Harvard political scientist Claudine Gay. Summing up what we have learned from previous investigations, Gay observed: “Limited electoral competition and low voter turnout are widely viewed as defining features of districts with black or Latino majorities.” The “lack of competition” serves to “discourage participation” and reduces “the incentive for candidates or parties to mobilize voters.” Thus, “the unique opportunity that majority-minority districts offer for minority self-determination only partially offsets . . . the decrease in turnout associated with noncompetitive electoral environments.”
Gay added further empirical evidence showing that the creation of majority-minority districts tends to depress minority voter turnout, and thus generates political disengagement and apathy. In the districts from which members of the California Assembly were elected in 1996, voter turnout exceeded 60 percent (of registered voters) in only a quarter of the majority-minority districts. Turnout levels were above 60 percent, by contrast, in 90 percent of the white-majority districts. In sum, majority-minority districts probably lower the level of black political participation — a significant cost overlooked by advocates of race-based constituencies.
Thus, the pressure on jurisdictions to create race-based districts ultimately has the perverse effect of suppressing minority turnout and diminishing electoral competition within districts. Race-conscious districting also contributes to the larger problem of political polarization among districts. It tends to reduce the diversity of adjoining districts. As Georgetown University law professor Sheryll Cashin has put the point, “Racial gerrymandering that creates both majority-minority districts and ‘safe’ Republican . . . districts reduces the number of competitive races and contributes to a balkanized electorate.”
Finally, majority-minority districts, with their insularity, may encourage dangerous black pessimism. A 2006 CNN poll found that 40 percent of blacks believed “many” or “almost all” white people disliked blacks. A Gallup poll almost three years earlier had discovered that only 38 percent of blacks believed they were treated “fairly” or “somewhat fairly” in our society. For blacks who had attended college — those best equipped to take advantage of the opportunities opened up since the civil rights revolution — the figure was an even lower 26 percent. The congressionally sanctioned narrative of an America still steeped in white racism and thus in need of another quarter-century of careful federal oversight over covered jurisdictions is not benign.
Pessimism had an impact in the early months of the campaign for the 2008 election. Polling before the first primary ballots were cast showed Barack Obama as having only modest support from black voters. African Americans, it appeared, were lukewarm toward Obama because they believed he had no chance of winning. Robert Ford, a black state senator in South Carolina, for instance, told a Time magazine reporter in January 2007 that “Obama would need 43% of the white vote in some states to win, and that’s humanly impossible.” Southern blacks “don’t believe this country is ready to vote for a black president,” he added. Referring to Obama’s opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jesse Jackson said, “A white female has an advantage over a black male.” And, after the first three contests, political scientist Philip Klinkner was ready to conclude that there was a “ceiling” on potential white support for Obama of about 35 percent.
That pessimism, woven into the fabric of the Voting Rights Act and broadcast as part of civil rights orthodoxy, is belied by polling data on white racial attitudes and by the facts on the ground. In 2007, for instance, only 5 percent of Americans said they were unwilling to vote for a “qualified African American candidate,” according to a Gallup Organization survey. Before the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s longtime pastor, surfaced with his racist, anti-American rhetoric, the Illinois senator had won the majority of white votes in the Democratic primaries in Virginia, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Utah, and had received impressive vote totals among whites in other states’ primaries, as well. And in November, as noted above, he received 43 percent of the white vote nationally.
In February 2008, voters in an Alabama county more than 96 percent white sent a black man, James Fields, as their representative to the state House of Representatives. “Really, I never realize he’s black,” a white woman, smiling, told a New York Times reporter. How many Americans today look at the president and think, “black”? I know of no polling in which that question has been asked, but I suspect the answer is, relatively few. They look to him for leadership in the face of extraordinarily urgent economic and foreign-policy problems; if previous surveys are any indication, they are unlikely to judge his accomplishments through the lens of race. America has come a very long way in the decades since the Voting Rights Act was passed.
– Abigail Thernstrom is the author of Voting Rights — and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections and the co-author with Stephan Thernstrom of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. She is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.