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Maybe it’s a law of nature of something: when people, or parties, engage in unprincipled inconsistency, they usually get their comeuppance, much like habitual liars who can’t keep track of their lies. This satisfying obsevation was brought to mind by an article on page A1 in today’s Washington Post, “Candidacy Fosters A Debate On Race: White Democrat Finds Resistance From Black Voters.”

It seems that David Yassky, a member of the New York City Council with “a solid résumé, lots of campaign cash and plenty of ideas for improving the slice of Brooklyn he wants to represent in Congress” is running into racial trouble in the Democratic primary:

… in New York’s 11th District, Yassky’s candidacy has touched off a controversy about race and turned a sleepy primary contest into an emotionally charged debate over minority political representation. The 11th District is one of the dozens of majority-black seats created in the aftermath of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. And Yassky, unlike his three primary opponents, is white.

The City Council member’s bid has not been well received by the district’s black establishment. Rep. Major R. Owens (D), the retiring 12-term incumbent, labeled Yassky a “colonizer.” Local black leaders have staged events to pressure the 42-year-old Brooklyn Democrat out of the race. A Web site was launched. Al Sharpton is calling on prominent white politicians, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), to take a stand against Yassky.

The New York 11th provides a veritable feast for irony lovers. First, who knew that Brooklyn had a history of disfranchising black voters such that it had to be brought under the sweeping injunctions of the Voting Rights Act? The New York 11th is not alone, however.

In a black district of Memphis, a white candidate who is among 15 Democrats vying for the seat being vacated by Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) has encountered racial hostility similar to that experienced by Yassky. Stephen I. Cohen, a Tennessee state senator, said in an interview with a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, that he is entitled to the same treatment Ford, who is black, has sought as he campaigns statewide for the Senate. “Don’t judge me by my race but by my record,” Cohen said.

I wonder if Cohen or Yassky would also argue that white candidates for college admission and jobs should be judged only by their records, with race playing no role. If not, why do they think they alone deserve evaluation by colorblind standards?

And then there’s the problem of “bloc voting.” As I pointed out here a good while ago,

The necessity for “majority-minority” districts was based on the assumption of “bloc voting,” that whites wouldn’t vote for blacks, but it did not take long for that assumption to be proven false. Once it became clear that super-majorities of blacks were not necessary to elect at least a significant number of blacks, the Democrats slowly emerged from the woodwork and began to argue (remember, they’ve never been addicted to consistency) that herding too many of blacks into “majority-minority” districts was racist, smacking of apartheid. At the same time, however, they argued that placing too few blacks in a district was also racist. To the Democrats, “too many” means more than enough to assure the election of a Democrat, and “too few” means not enough. By some cosmic co-incidence, the Democrats implicitly argue, that precise balance is what the [Voting Rights Act] requires.

What’s interesting about the New York 11th, however, is that the racial “bloc voting” seems to be by the majority, which is black. Do the minority whites in the district have a civil right, guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act, to “elect a representative of their choice”? Don’t hold your breath. Perhaps it is assumed that blacks can be represented only by a black, but whites, Asians, etc., can be represented by anybody.

The black–white dichotomy, in any event, is now as dated as the idea that whites would never vote for a black. As Edward Blum of the American Enterprise Institute points out (quoted in the WaPo article), “race just doesn’t have the power that it once did” in many formerly black districts. That is certainly true here.

The district has evolved in recent years into a demographic melange, blending long-standing African American and Caribbean American populations with newer arrivals, including Arab, Asian and Hispanic immigrants and affluent white voters. The four candidates in the race to succeed [retiring Rep. Major] Owens represent this new demographic reality: Yassky lives in wealthy Brooklyn Heights; City Council Member Yvette D. Clarke is of Caribbean descent; state Sen. Carl Andrews is an African American from Crown Heights; and Owens’s son, Chris Owens, is biracial, having a white Jewish mother.

Attending an elementary school graduation last week, Yassky recalled that, not long ago, most of the students there were of Italian heritage.

Then he pointed to the program for this year’s ceremony. Among the graduates’ surnames were Wu, Ramos, Imran and Zapolsky, with one DeBenedetto and one Salerno.

Looking at this new complexity, Democratic leaders are increasingly voicing concern about the VRA-induced “wasting” of Democratic votes by cramming more blacks into a district than is necessary to elect a Democrat. Example:

… some Democratic strategists have begun to question whether strict adherence to a 40-year-old model of minority-dominated districts could be hurting the party in the long term. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that at one time it made sense for the courts and state legislatures to carve out majority-black districts to break racially discriminatory practices, primarily in the South.

Looking at the map of congressional districts today, Emanuel asked: “Are we at the point in the political process where you don’t need a 70 percent district, but a 50 to 45 district, with the political capacity to be more competitive in surrounding areas, so that more Democrats can win?”

Emanuel’s point merely confirms the charge I made in my earlier post: to Democratic leaders, the Voting Rights Act no longer has anything do with protecting minority voters from discriminatory barriers impeding their right to vote, and everything to do with electing Democrats. If districts with 70% minority voters are required to elect a Democrat, the VRA should be interpreted to require 70%, but if 50% will do, then that is all the VRA requires.

Emanuel, and most Democrats, have forgotten that the Voting Rights Act was intended to protect the rights of minority voters, not to guarantee the election of minority office holders. As pointed out, accurately, by David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on minority issues,

Remember, the [Voting Rights Act] is about black voters, not black elected officials,” Bositis said. “And black voters are not having their interests represented, although there are more black members of Congress.”

Say What? (1)

  1. Tim July 10, 2006 at 10:08 am | | Reply

    Remember, the [Voting Rights Act] is about black voters, not black elected officials,” Bositis said. “And black voters are not having their interests represented, although there are more black members of Congress.”

    Then why don’t we just make more members of Congress.

Say What?