The goal of Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to destroy the political foundation for Jim Crow and create racial equality in the American polity, with blacks free to form political coalitions and choose candidates in the same manner as all other citizens.
But in the racist South, it soon became clear, that equality could not be achieved--as originally hoped--simply by giving blacks the vote. Thus, through a process of judicial interpretation, and congressional amendment, the statute was reshaped to confer on blacks a unique political privilege. Legislative districts, carefully drawn to reserve seats for African Americans in numbers roughly proportional to their population, became a statutory mandate.
Barack Obama's election is the capstone on decades of increasing integration. Voting rights law should reflect that new reality.
Those majority-minority districts were designed to elect blacks, and they worked. By 2002, 47 percent of the 9,400 black elected officials nationwide were from one of the seven states "covered" by Section 5 of the act, although those states contain only 30 percent of the nation's black population.
Are such race-conscious districts necessary today? Are southern white voters still so racist that no black candidate standing before them stands a chance of receiving their votes? If Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act were stripped away, would Jim Crow rise again? No. America is a changed nation today in every respect--politically, socially, culturally, and demographically.
The majority-minority districts that Section 5 requires may have been crucial to establishing a healthy black political culture in the South after centuries of slavery and brutal repression. Such political protectionism was clearly needed at the time.
Today, however, they arguably serve as a brake on black political aspirations and a barrier to greater integration. They offer safe political ground to aspiring black politicians--who, as a result, seldom run in settings that would demand they move to the political center in order to build effective biracial coalitions. Thus they work to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics--precisely the opposite of what the statute intended.
The election of Barack Obama is the capstone on decades of increasing integration of American life. By every measure, American politics is now indisputably integrated. Voting rights law should reflect that new reality.
Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at AEI. She is writing an AEI Press book on the Voting Rights Act.