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Political ghettos don't foster integration

Published Mar. 8, 1993|Updated Oct. 9, 2005

After 25 years, the Kerner Commission's exploration of racial discontent after the 1967 Watts riots is mainly memorable for its grim warning that America was moving toward "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."

The usefulness of the warning, then and now, depends on which evidence you look at; it is mixed. By and large, the warning was alarmist then and is alarmist now.

But while we're on the subject of racial separation, let us not fail to note a crowning irony _ that 25 years after the Kerner warning, some federal policies are promoting racial separatism, if not inequality, and often to the applause of those who ritually deplore the drift toward "two societies."

The most glaring example is a reapportionment policy of which the Supreme Court approved March 2 _ the creation of racially gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts.

Such districts are now sanctioned by 1982 amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the first measure in American history that effectively secured to blacks the uncontested right to vote.

In the double-talk to which legislative draftsmen are reduced by objectives patently inconsistent with national ideals, those amendments provide that "the extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to office . . . is one circumstance which may be considered" when legislatures redraw the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts.

In plain words, that means that states now are free to create districts in which the election of a "member of a protected class" (that is, a black or Hispanic) would be overwhelmingly probable.

Significantly, these amendments were added to the Voting Rights Act during one of those rare seasons when Republicans controlled the Senate. The reason was obvious: If black voters are ghettoized, the eventual result can only be more Republican seats, given the tendency of black voters to prefer Democrats.

The most bizarre example of the racial gerrymandering in which the nation's highest court has now acquiesced is the new 12th congressional district of North Carolina. No more than a precinct or two wide in some places, it snakes its way diagonally, northeast to southwest, across the breadth of the state. It is custom-designed to elect a black member and, as of last November, did so.

The historic precedents are unsavory. As George Will has noted in his book Restoration, a very similar "shoestring" district was fashioned by Mississippi legislators immediately after Reconstruction. It ran along the Mississippi River and by concentrating black votes in one district, it assured the other five of white representation.

Yes, the motive _ or at least the declared motive _ is different. The result is identical. If it is the aim of the policy to increase the total of assured black and other minority seats in Congress and in state legislatures, it will succeed. It already has. The count of such seats grew by 30 or so in 1992, reflecting the first reapportionment since 1982.

If, however, the aim is to advance the larger interests of black voters, or to promote the color-blindness and racial integration which the Kerner Commission, in its old-fashioned way, seemed to envision as the national ideal, success will be harder to measure.

On its face, the practice of ghettoizing congressional and legislative seats smacks of the new politics of group entitlement. Maybe that is to be the wave of the future. But if so, let us dispense, please, with what Lincoln called "the base alloy of hypocrisy." Let us not sanction forms of deliberate racial division out of one side of our mouths while, out of the other, invoking the integrationist rhetoric of the Kerner Commission.

Perhaps the real imperative, 25 years after the Kerner report, is to decide which way we want it _ a nation pursuing the ideals of racial integration, or one turned into a checkerboard of ghettos by a racial spoils system. We probably can't have it both ways.

Washington Post Writers Group


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