Supreme Court Strikes Down Racial Gerrymandering in North Carolina

Kamau Franklin of the Atlanta Black Star says a Supreme Court ruling that North Carolina unlawfully used race in redrawing Congressional maps is a blow to racial gerrymandering across the United States

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The Supreme Court has ruled North Carolina unlawfully used race in redrawing two congressional districts. State lawmakers changed the voting map to put African Americans in as few districts as possible. Since those votes overwhelmingly go to Democrats, that meant more votes for Republicans in other areas. The practice is known as gerrymandering, and joining me to discuss it is Kamau Franklin, political editor of Atlanta Black Star. Kamau, welcome.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Hey. Thank you for having me.

AARON MATE: Let me read to you from the majority opinion. This is Justice Kagan. She writes, “A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason.” It’s 2017, and we have the Supreme Court ruling that a state used race as the predominant factor in drawing up the map of a voting district. What’s your take on it?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Well, I think this was an obvious one. At least it should be, and I’m glad it was for the Supreme Court. It was obvious to North Carolina that the Republican majority decided to use race, as you stated earlier, as a way to filter the majority of black votes into two districts. In fact, if you look at the configurations of the two areas, the 1st Congressional District and the 12th Congressional District, they went through a lot of pains to make sure that they could fit as many black people into those two districts as possible. Sometimes within the Voting Rights Act, the court allows some use of race to decide how to put folks in certain districts, but that use is supposed to be done very carefully and the state has to have compelling reasons to do so. In this particular case, the court found that they didn’t have compelling reasons, because the reasons that the state attributed to why they had done this turned out to be false.

The main reason that they used was that they were actually trying to comply with the Voting Rights Act in putting all the black folks into one district as a way to give them minority majority protection. Unfortunately, the court read right through this, unfortunately for North Carolina Republican legislators, not for the people of North Carolina. The court read right through this and said, if you look at the history of voting in these two districts, it was obvious that the black population, which made up slight minorities in these two districts, still were able to win representation in these areas. Since that was the case and since there’s a track record of that, you cannot now come back and say you were trying to actually help this particular grouping win more races when they were already winning races in this area. That became a very obvious false reason that the state was using for why it did what it did.

AARON MATE: That’s fascinating. A law that was designed to prevent voting discrimination is then cited by the state Republicans in North Carolina to carry out what at least the court has ruled to be racially-based discrimination to exclude African American voters.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah, exactly. I think this bodes well for future court challenges, because the other thing that the court noted in this particular case was that the state tried to suggest as another rationale for what they did was that they were doing it for political reasons. Within these kind of cases, it’s almost you can do something for a reason that’s not a great reason, like trying to keep your political majority, but you can’t do it for a reason that’s protected by the Constitution, like discriminating against a certain race and/or gender or so forth.

In this particular case, what the court also found was that, by using the methods that they used, that they were actually attempting to again jam these folks into this one area. The court said that there was no way they were going to let that stand. In other cases, it was obvious that they were using race and using race to suggest that race was a de facto reason in some ways, because the political affiliation became the main reason. The court again read right through this and said, “Look, in these cases, if race is tied really, really closely to political affiliation, we’re still going to look at this as a race-based reason for what you’re doing.”

AARON MATE: In terms of this case having a impact beyond North Carolina, there was a report put out by the Brennan Center, and they found that racial gerrymandering by Republicans gave them an extra 16 or 17 seats in the House.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think even in this particular case, even though the Supreme Court decided it in a way I think it will be fruitful for future challenges, because this case is a little old and these districts were actually redrawn since this case came to the court, it had no effect on the Republican majority in the State Senate and the State House, so I think … in the state, in the, I’m sorry, the federal House in terms of the division of delegates or representation between Republicans and Democrats. I think Republicans, although they see a warning, will still try, particularly during this crucial time when the next Census is coming up in 2020, to begin to practice this … not only this practice of gerrymandering, but also continuing their practices of voter ID laws, particularly with a favorable administration in the White House and a favorable Congress held by Republicans.

AARON MATE: Yeah, so in that context, can you talk about this voting commission that was just set up by President Trump to ostensibly target voting fraud?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah, I mean, on its face, the commission is … The best legal analysis I can give you is that the commission is a joke. It’s obvious that what Trump is doing, and he’s doing it at the behest of the Republican Party, is to try to slow down the demographic train that’s running through this country, that’s basically saying that there will be black, Latinos will become the majority … Blacks, Latinos, and Asians will become the majority with progressive whites which could lead in the near future to more Democrat, liberal, left type of candidates getting elected. That train is something that the Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down.

The person that was appointed by Trump from Kansas is well-known to be an architect of voter ID laws which again try to take people, black people in particular, off the ballots. I think there’s going to have to be a strong fight to make sure that this commission and whatever findings that it has are really rallied against, that people do what they can to stop this from happening, because what they’re trying to do is stop the future and stop progress and stop history from taking place by reverting back to old rules and old ways that were tried in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

History is repeating itself in certain ways. They’re going to try to use less racial, overt racial, languages as was done in the past, and instead use certain technicalities to try to suggest voter fraud is happening in some major way, when in actuality we all know that voter fraud rarely happens and the larger issue is voters being knocked off the rolls and not being allowed their rights to vote.

AARON MATE: Can you talk specifically a bit more about the context in North Carolina? Today’s ruling came just a week after a district court ruled that North Carolina lawmakers were, with their voting restrictions, targeting African Americans with “surgical precision.”

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah. I mean, what they did in these particular cases is that they took these minority areas, and they’re still doing this, and drawing districts which basically encircled the neighborhoods that black people live in, and putting those black folks in all one district and/or in all two districts. Those districts are already Democrat districts or liberal, left-leaning districts.

By doing this, what they hope to do is to protect their majority from now and into the future. Again, because this particular case is a little old, these districts were already redrawn, and so as this fight continues and as we look towards the Census in 2020 when new lines will be drawn again, we’re looking at a battleground here, not only in North Carolina, but across the South and other areas, but the South has to be particularly looked at because of the history of voters being denied their right to vote. Obviously, the killings and other things have happened in the South to suppress the vote. These things are really coming up on us, and they’re coming up on us fast. These are just some of the opening shots, I feel, from right-wing legislators to control, to continue to control, the political process in the Deep South.

AARON MATE: Finally, Kamau, there was recently a study put out by Priorities USA that found that voter ID laws in Wisconsin, which was a key swing state, Trump won it by 20,000 votes or so, that voter ID laws there suppressed more than 200,000 voters, dramatically suppressed the African American turnout. What has to happen, aside from all these court cases, what has to happen on the ground between now and 2018 and 2020 for things to change?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think it’s really, as usually, it’s an organizing strategy that highlights what’s happening down there. People have to be out in the streets. These court cases usually only work when there’s a public backing in the particular state or county where these things are happening, and folks can see what’s happening in real time. In real time in these particular districts, an expanding black, Latino communities and demographics are now being [inaudible 00:10:32] and denied proper access to rights to vote.

I think the court cases, on the street organizing, media campaigns, I think a lot of the things that are going to need to happen have to get revved up, not only to battle what’s happening of course in the White House with Trump, but when these voting districts are done, they’re going to be locked in for the most part for close to a decade. It’s going to try to seal the Republican majorities even though demographic changes are happening. I think people have to be omnipresent and omni-aware of what’s happening on the ground and do something about it in terms of organizing.

AARON MATE: Kamau Franklin, political editor of Atlanta Black Star. Kamau, thank you.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.