By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – “Advancement” is the middle word in the name of the NAACP, but if the state chapter prevails in a pending lawsuit, advancement is not assured.
In brief, the NAACP has renewed its complaint that statewide voting in 2011, held using House and Senate district lines established before the 2010 census, was illegal.
Further, the NAACP says new district maps adopted this year by the Legislature based on the new census are also illegal, despite approval by the U.S. Justice Department and that House and the Senate plans both increase minority districts.
The proportion of voting age Mississippians who are black is 35 percent.
The previous plan had 41 House districts with black majorities. The new plan has 42. That’s 34 percent of all House districts.
The previous plan had 13 black majority Senate districts. The new plan has 15. That’s 29 percent of all Senate districts.
Carroll Rhodes, attorney for the NAACP, is apparently basing his case on federal language that says states must create the maximum number of minority districts that can be created. The suit says (1) it is possible to create even more districts where black citizens are the voting majority and (2) that while increasing minority districts, as the Legislature did, the percentage of minority advantage in some districts was decreased.
Again, the new plan has received federal approval as fully constitutional, fully in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. An NAACP victory in court is unlikely.
But let’s take a look from a nonlegalistic perspective:
Here’s a fact: Last November’s elections in Mississippi gave the Republican Party a near-stranglehold on both chambers of the Legislature plus every statewide office except attorney general.
Now think about that, please.
Why, in turn, would members of a white majority, Tea Party-fueled Legislature, freshly in office, rush to passage – with almost no discussion or debate – a set of maps designed to actually increase the number of black citizens elected to their ranks?
Answer one would be that it was an act of contrition and reconciliation, a recognition that for too long Mississippi’s legislative branch was unconscionably lilly white while a third of the state’s residents were not.
Answer two would be that there’s a growing, if subtle, recognition of the math. The good and necessary purpose of the Voting Rights Act nearly 50 years ago was to break Jim Crow’s back. The purpose was not to fuel conservativism or increase conservatives’ “locks” on districts, but it has. The reason is that it’s impossible to concentrate minority voting strength without, as a byproduct, concentrating majorities.
The Voting Rights Act provided black Mississippians something they had not had since Reconstruction – seats at the tables of power.
But seats at the table, laudable as they were, also resulted in “safe” districts for the people’s representatives, black or white.
Indeed, look at the surge that created conservative majorities in both chambers of Congress in 1994. It was fueled in large part when black majority districts were created in the South and, as a byproduct, created staunchly Republican districts.
Another byproduct, and the one relevant to the NAACP suit, is that districting by race and, tangentially, by ideology, has left those serving in office no motive to become solution-oriented, to try to work with others across lines of race or party.
People ask all the time, “Why is Congress gridlocked?” The simple answer is that incumbents, elected as they are from staunchly partisan districts, can lose face with voters for even thinking aloud about compromise.
The NAACP suit also asks for new elections to be held almost immediately under the maximization of districts its lawyers say is required by law.
As Garth Brooks sang, “One of God’s greatest gifts is unanswered prayers.”
The best outcome for the nation would be districts lines drawn, as they were before 1965, along geographical or county or city lines but, of course, without intent to discriminate in favor of blacks or whites.
That would not fulfill the desires of organizations such as the NAACP that seem incapable of thinking beyond any factor other than race, but it would lead to officials who would have to listen to and win the favor of diverse constituencies – and produce results – if they wanted to be re-elected.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.