Federal judicial panel approves racially gerrymandered districts 

Specific Intent

A recent decision by a judicial panel in South Carolina demonstrates the inability of federal courts to undo some discriminatory actions on the state level. In the decision, the panel approved South Carolina's recently redrawn U.S. Congressional districts, ruling that the areas as drawn did not discriminate against black voters.

Eight African-American voters, represented by former state Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian, had alleged that the Republican-controlled state legislature purposely drew the district lines to concentrate black voters in specific districts, thereby diluting the power of their votes. The effect of concentrating voters based on race, they alleged, conversely created majority-white districts within which the impact of minority votes would be minimized. The voters had introduced compelling evidence that the lines had been redrawn specifically to segregate those residential areas in which a majority of black voters live. The judges disagreed, ruling that the new districts were proper and that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the S.C. General Assembly "acted with a discriminatory purpose."

The panel ruled this way despite evidence that members of the state GOP took race into account when creating the districts. The Post and Courier reports, "Republicans — led by attorneys for House Speaker Bobby Harrell — say black voters in House District 79 have consistently voted against white voters. In the 2008 general election, 88 percent of black voters in that district voted for Barack Obama while only 12.7 percent of white voters voted for him."

Before examining the absurdity of these contentions, it is important to put into proper context the legal basis for the judges' decision. Under federal law, a litigant challenging a facially neutral state action needs to show more than a disproportionate impact on an affected minority group in order to prove a violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. A line of U.S. Supreme Court cases has held that a plaintiff must also prove that the party in question had the specific intent to discriminate and that the purpose was legally impermissible. One particular case, Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation, has been called a primer for government officials eager to discriminate but anxious about civil rights suits. The difficulty for plaintiffs in overcoming this hurdle is underscored by the fact that the court does not define how legislative intent might be proven. The upshot is that legislators in our General Assembly can purposely segregate black voters into voting districts based on their voting patterns without fear of judicial reversal. In the S.C. General Assembly, this practice has led to more black representatives, but also the near extinction of the white Democrat, a permanent Republican majority, and Republican safe districts where minority voters can be disregarded with impunity. It should be noted that black voters do not "vote against white voters," as suggested by the GOP; they vote for candidates who they perceive as representing their collective best interests.

Ever since the 1960s when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson championed the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, blacks as a whole have tended to consistently vote for Democratic candidates. This tendency has increased as Republicans have altered their platform to attract white voters who are disaffected with policies like school desegregation via busing and affirmative action programs. Black voters' overwhelming support of Barack Obama in South Carolina in 2008 can more accurately be attributed to support for his Democratic policies than to the color of his skin.

The federal panel's failure to overturn the redistricting plan shows that the federal government cannot always counteract state action that disproportionately affects minorities. Without such a safeguard, Republican-dominated legislatures will continue to seek ways to limit, marginalize, and isolate minority votes.


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