Redistricting and the Shape of America

By Mike Koetting April 26, 2022

My last blog attracted more responses than usual. The most important concerns had to do with why I assumed that the only way to get Black representatives in the U.S. is to create majority-minority districts. Why did I assume that Whites would automatically reject Black candidates? After all, commenters noted, there are multiple dimensions in a Congressional election and why assume race is the overriding factor? Not all Blacks share the same political agenda and many Blacks and Whites have similar agendas.

As I noted in the post itself, the answer to that question from an historical perspective is straightforward. Through the 2018 election, more than 80% of Black representatives came from majority-minority districts—in 2018, for instance, it was 88%. This strongly suggests that in order to have anything like a proportionate number of Blacks in the House, there needs to be majority-minority districts. (One suspects the same dynamic is at work in the Senate where Blacks have won only 1% of all Senatorial elections since 1965.)

Need for Black Representatives

Which gets to the even more basic question: why is it important to have Blacks in office? After all, no Black represents all Black opinion and many Whites do as good a job of representing specific Black interests as Black officials.

My answer is both superficial and at the heart of the discussion of racism. We need Black representation in Congress because Congress writes the laws and the rest of us follow them. As humans, if we don’t see people “like us” in the law-giving group, we will suspect the laws will not reflect our interest. And, conversely, when we see people “not like us”, we wonder how much they represent our interest.

This sentiment cannot be dismissed as a matter of paranoid perception. Although there are complex forces at work—which lead to exceptions, contradictions and remarkable transitions– it is still beyond dispute that on balance laws tend to reflect the interests of those making them. Some times this is because representatives vote in crassly self-interested ways. But, more often I think, it is because their world view has been shaped by their background. As circumstances start to change, some people find themselves with different world views. The presence of Blacks in our highest offices helps change the world views of all, White and Black, office holders and other citizens.  

This is particularly important in America. We are a nation which has relentlessly promoted itself as a bastion of freedom and equality. From day one, however, the rhetoric didn’t synch with the reality. On the one hand, the awkwardness of this disjunct has never been completely lost. Even as the Constitution was being written, there were people calling attention to these contradictions. On the other hand, the majority world view so fundamentally failed to recognize the shared humanity of “others”, alternative realities were overwhelmingly unlikely. However wrong this may have been, it was the reality on the ground, and reflected in the laws of the democracy.

Progress Significant but Partial

We have never completely shaken this problem, but bit by bit we have expanded the boundaries of who is a full participant in the country and the culture.

This gradual broadening depends on both the reasoned conscience of advocates and the actual struggle of people on the outside demanding equality. It has proceeded unevenly, constantly opening up new fissures between not just the majority and “the other”, but between those members of the majority who recognized the contradictions and those who do not. (Or do, and don’t care because the existing arrangements suit their interests.) And among members of minority groups who have different approaches.

These fissures spin off a host of challenges and conundrums. Cultures are the accretion of many years and many tiny pieces–some of which are fundamental, some of which are incidental–but are most powerful as an amorphous whole with tentacles in every part of life.  Consider the extent to which some of our largest cultural holidays are built on Christian holidays. Not a per se problem, but when the percentage of Christians in a culture decreases, every one is a bit at sea. The non-Christians are not entirely sure how to relate and many Christians feel aggrieved at the apparent devaluation of their cultural heritage as the original of the holiday gets pushed further to the background. The annual discussion of the “war against Christmas” is much less about any specific issues and much more the lament for a culture that simply doesn’t have the same salience as it did in people’s formative years. And while it’s easy to say “Well, we’re just broadening the meaning of the holiday” if you are not among the concerned, it’s a much bigger dislocation for people to whom the Christian identify was more central.

Those struggling for full recognition as part of the country and culture face different problems. It is a long road to acceptance. Along that road, it is not hallucinatory to think their acceptance is, at best, provisional. It is not surprising that they continue to think of themselves as “the other”, which is a further irritant to cultural assimilation. Worse yet, should they take offense at the shabby treatment they have received and continue to receive, they are seen as “the angry Black” (angry Indian, angry Muslim, angry woman, etc.), and that becomes a cynical justification for the majority to see them as “the other”.

Racism—but Complicated

Two posts ago, I argued that the support for Republicans among Whites without college educations was due to racism. It is. But when I say “racism” I am not necessarily talking about the full Ku Klux Klan variety of racism. I am talking about the quieter, culturally baked-in variety, which is typically a combination of seeing “the other” as an abstract threat, stacking the deck against them and then blaming the victim for the consequences. This does not depend on animus toward individuals, but a general sense that these ”others” are not entitled to the same things “we” are. And when “they” get help, it is something being taken from “us.”

There are unlimited twists and turns in this story, particularly the significant plot complications caused by the role of economic elites, which play a specific part in racism and likewise contribute materially to the general inequality in American society. The urban and rural stories might also have some different sub-themes. But the role of economic elites will not be addressed until the White working class joins with the non-White working class to address common interests. That will be difficult without a fuller acceptance of non-Whites as equal members of the coalition.

I believe that having Blacks in elective office roughly proportionate to their share of the population is an important part of getting to a place where our society sees them as less an aberration and more simply a fair part of the evolving culture.

Hence, my strong sense of the importance of race in thinking about electoral districts.

I can’t, however, leave the topic without noting something that may be important. You may have noticed that my argument about the necessity of majority-minority districts focused on data previous to 2020. Something unusual happened in 2020: all eight of the districts that had newly elected Black Congressional representatives were majority White districts. Likewise, there has been a handful of Black Senators elected in majority White states. It is hard to know if these are trends or aberrations caused by unusual political cross-currents. In any event, they don’t necessarily suggest the beginning of an era where Blacks are—let alone feel—fully integrated into our society. Consider the backlash to the election of the first Black president.

But even if they are hopeful signs, I am not giving up my belief that we need to specifically design our electoral systems to increase the likelihood that it creates elected officials that look like the population at large. Majority-minority districts are certainly not the only way to do this and possibly not the best way to do this. But until we make some other modifications in the system, they remain necessary wherever we can achieve them.

One Final Note

Commentary from my readers did cause me to reconsider one of my other recommendations—expanding the size of the House. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems to make any appreciable difference. What the Representatives do and how we hold them accountable (or not) is much more important. Of course, it’s not like there is anyone out there doting on my recommendations, but just in case, I want to make clear I’ve scratched that one. But y’all should get busy on the rest of them.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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