CHARLIE MITCHELL: Section 5 essential, but it polarizes us, too

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Suppose your new job is to manage a factory with 5,000 workers – 4,000 in blue shirts and 1,000 in green shirts.
On your first day it becomes really clear: The blue shirts not only have all the good jobs, they regard the green shirts as inferior. This “system” is, on its face, benign, but there are periodic outbursts, including violence by the blue shirts to remind the green shirts they shouldn’t challenge the way things are.
As boss, you sense immediately this isn’t right. The factory may be working, meeting its quota, but at what cost to basic decency? If a worker is good at what he does, why should he be denied a promotion just because he’s a green shirt?
You also notice all work groups are divided so that the blue shirts outnumber the green shirts. Naturally, the foremen, who emerge as leaders among the workers, are all blue shirts, too.
Aha, you say, the trick to ending this inequality is to come up with a management mechanism that assures at least some green shirts will become foremen. Your solution is to create some work groups where there are more green shirts than blue shirts.
If it were 1965 instead of 2011 and you were a member of Congress instead of a factory manager, what you crafted would be known as Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Initially passed with an automatic repealer, Section 5 has been renewed time and again. The new law was celebrated by President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the death knell of discrimination. Any hint that it’s not perfect triggers immediate peals of “racism” and “we’re not going back.”
But Section 5 should be questioned.
It should be improved because while it has led to fairness, it has also fed polarization.
Who says the single federal provision that opened countless elective offices and, tangentially, private opportunities to minorities has a down side?
Well, try just-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a champion of civil rights if there ever was one.
Now, to be accurate, the question to which he responded in the current edition of Newsweek was not about Section 5 or the Voting Rights Act specifically. The question was about whether the court could continue to do its job given the extreme left-right divide of the American electorate. His answer was that he thought it could, and then he continued: “There is a lot of polarization out there, and one of the reasons for it is all the gerrymandering that is permitted now, that I used to write against. I was on the losing side many, many times.”
This is the year legislators convening in Jackson are directed by the Constitution to adjust the lines of the districts from which they were elected and, also, the lines from which four members of the U.S. House from Mississippi are elected.
Redistricting is boring stuff – a Christmas toy on the den floor, batteries dead.
But it does matter. District-to-district populations must be equalized and, under today’s application of Section 5, districts in which minorities are the majority must remain the same or increase in number. The result is, using that old word Stevens used, “gerrymandering” or packing districts to achieve predictable results.
Candidates in “white” districts don’t have to speak to any topics that matter to minorities. Candidates in “black” districts can speak only to matters that dominate the minority agenda.
The lines themselves are drawn using “census enumeration district” data that has nothing to do with precinct or (in state and federal races) county lines, so that election day becomes a confusing morass of many different ballots at individual voting places.
And in the larger picture, aside from matters of race, we send people to city halls, courthouses, the Legislature and Congress who have no motivation to serve our collective best interests.
Back at your factory, if you saw the blue shirts and green shirts as polarized as ever, you’d want to do something about it, wouldn’t you?

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.