LLOYD GRAY: Good result, but at a cost of polarity

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state – not the percentage, but actual numbers. That’s something, given our history of racial discrimination in voting.
Our history, though, is what made it happen. The 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent federal court cases forced Mississippi to provide black citizens full access to the ballot box and public office. But not only that, they’ve gone beyond prohibition of the overt discrimination that once existed to require an active effort to create and maintain black majority voting districts.
With very few exceptions, those black elected officials – municipal and county office-holders, state legislators and a couple of congressmen – have been elected through the years from districts with a substantial majority of black voters. In 2007, Eric Powell of Corinth became the first black legislator elected from a white-majority district when he won a Senate seat. He lost his re-election bid last year.
The infusion of so many black elected officials into government in Mississippi unquestionably has been positive for the state. It has greatly expanded access and ownership in the system, and without the Voting Rights Act’s insistence on inclusion, it wouldn’t have happened.
But these changes for the good haven’t come without a cost. The effort to create as many black majority districts as possible has resulted in greater polarization because districts are now much more racially defined. Creating more black majority districts means that white majority districts with a significant black presence have become increasingly rare.
This was starkly evident in the House and Senate redistricting plans unveiled in the Capitol over the last two weeks. While Republican leaders increased the number of black majority districts in the House from 41 to 42 and in the Senate from 13 to 15, an unsettling trend emerged.
Currently 13 House and 11 Senate districts are more than 35 percent black but less than a majority. Under the new redistricting plans, those drop to only two in the House and three in the Senate.
This, of course, helps Republicans gain or hold on to those seats because blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But it also ensures little racial diversity – at least enough diversity to force legislators to pay much attention to the unique concerns of their black constituents – in most white majority districts. If you’re 35 percent, you’ve got some clout. Below that, not nearly as much.
Black lawmakers say that makes the Legislature’s plan vulnerable in the courts. The plan’s proponents say, no, it’s the number of black majority districts that counts, and that’s going up some. Those arguments are likely to be heard in a court challenge to come.
But even if the latest plan passes court muster, it’s troubling that our legislators represent districts that are increasingly polarized along racial lines. It has helped elect black lawmakers, yes, but it has also isolated black political clout – and made it harder to get beyond racial politics. It almost seems, of all things, like a new form of segregation.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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