« In memoriam: J. Michael Bradford (1952-2003) | Main | 9/11 »

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

It's all about making people think it's all about race: Fisking Michelle Goldberg's Salon article on Texas redistricting

Faces of AmericaWriting in the online magazine Salon, Michelle Goldberg has an article out entitled "The Texas stalemate: It's all about race."  (Subscription required, or you can watch a 30-second commercial for a "day-pass"; the one I saw consisted of an ACLU ad that factually misdepicted the USA Patriot Act).  It's subtitled "Few are saying it openly, but the DeLay-Rove power grab in Austin is all about keeping white control of an increasingly Hispanic state," and it's been cited as authoritative, conclusive proof of rampant racism in Texas by such sources as the San Francisco Bay View and left-wing blogger Atrios.  So what's Ms. Goldberg got to say about the Lone Star State from her home in New York?

Sept. 3, 2003  |  ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Exile in Albuquerque is not glamorous. The 11 Democratic Texas state senators who fled to New Mexico more than a month ago to block a Republican power grab spend most of their days and nights at a slightly shabby Marriott hotel in the city's grim, sprawling periphery....

To prevent the formation of a quorum in the Texas Senate, the Ten Truant Texas Dems™ had their choice of any place to stay in the world, so long as it was outside Texas.  Tom DeLay didn't pick Albuquerque, much less this particular Marriott.  But in fact, Texans have been escaping the summer heat to their vacation spots in New Mexico for decades.  Ms. Goldberg, I suggest you ask New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and a vocal supporter of the Truant Texans, whether he appreciates your characterization of his state's largest city as "grim" and "sprawling."

... While most press accounts cast them as opponents of a Republican plan to grab power by redrawing legislative districts, the lawmakers-in-exile here see something at once more subtle and more important:   the latest chapter in the South's long, ugly war over minority voting rights.

Yes, even though "subtle," this theme makes for much better talking points and fund-raising than saying, "We've fled the jurisdiction to protect white, male incumbent Democratic Congressmen who will likely lose their seats unless we can maintain the pro-Democratic gerrymander from 1991."  Never mind, of course, that it was the southern wing of the Democratic Party who was guilty of the minority voting rights violations that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  The question is, having wrapped themselves in the banner of Martin Luther King, can these modern-day Democrats make the banner fit?

Nine of the 10 senators remaining in Albuquerque are black or Hispanic; the other one represents a district that is mainly minority. And within a few years, experts say, Texas will join California as a state where Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities will outnumber Anglos.

The second sentence is true, and explains why Texas Republicans are so enthusiastic about recruiting and supporting conservative Hispanic candidates (e.g., Orlando Sanchez in the current Houston mayoral race).  But that second sentence doesn't logically relate to the first. 

So what's the purpose of the first sentence?  Each of the Ten Truant Texas Dems™ was elected from a state senatorial district that has already been redistricted by court decision in 2001.  It's not their seats that are at risk, nor the state-senatorial voting rights of any of their constituents that is at issue in the present fight.  The only reason for mentioning the race or ethnicity of these senators is to raise a demonstrably false impression that the Republican desire to adjust Congressional districts is intended to discriminate against them on the basis of their race.  That's not particularly subtle.  And it can't possibly true.

"This is an effort to seriously gut minority voting rights," says Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, head of the Texas Democratic Senate delegation. "We could not protect our constituents without breaking quorum" and fleeing Texas to short-circuit the Republican plot.

With all due respect, Sen. Van de Putte — and I respect you every bit as much as I respect Meryl Streepyour constituents are the people who can choose to vote for you, or not; the boundaries of your senatorial district aren't affected here.  As for the choice of the term "plot" — well, that's a nice, loaded word that appeals to grassy-knoll enthusiasts everywhere.  But it's a pretty poor "plot" when the Governor calls three special sessions for the express purpose of adjusting Texas Congressional district boundaries to make our Congressional delegation reflect the broad and deep state-wide support Texans give to our favorite-son President and his party.  Can it be a "plot" when it's so poor a secret?

If the senators are stubborn, it's partly because they've come to see their stance against redistricting as a civil rights struggle, not a political quarrel. At first, it's difficult to see that the battle over Texas redistricting is all about race. Spurred by Texas powerhouse Tom DeLay, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and by White House maestro Karl Rove, Texas Republicans are trying to ram through a redistricting proposal that would virtually ensure that Republicans would replace between five and seven white, moderate Democratic incumbents.

(Emphasis by Beldar.)  Or maybe it's hard to see that the battle is all about race because the battle is not all about race. 

The description here of the various redistricting proposals on the table isn't far off.  The Republicans' obvious and stated motive is indeed to replace "moderate Democratic incumbents."  Now, it's not an accident that they're targeting "white, moderate Democratic incumbents" rather than black or Hispanic ones.  Regardless of whether there was an intention to target black or Hispanic incumbents based on their race, even a negative effect on such incumbents would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  You remember that statute, the one with a conclusive and binding presumption (based on the actions of the 1960s-and-earlier southern Democrats) that all Texans are racists who are incapable of merely unintentionally diluting minority voting strength. 

No, minority incumbent Democrats like Sheila Jackson-Lee or Rubén Hinojosa have nothing to worry about in this fight because they are bulletproof — any threat to their majority-minority districts would be blown out of the water in a New York minute.  The DOJ and a three-judge federal panel (from which there's a direct appeal to the US Supreme Court) will review any new redistricting map that comes out of the 78th Texas Legislature, and they have an absolute trump card to protect against any harm to minority voting rights.  US District Judge George P. Kazen of Laredo — currently the Chief Judge of the Southern District of Texas and a Clinton appointee — went out of his way to point this rather important fact out on five separate occasions in the first hearing on the voting rights lawsuit brought by the Ten Truant Texas Dems™, along with an express plea to the media to point this out to the general public.  (The plea was, of course, ignored, since it doesn't fit with the agitprop coming from the Dem Senators themselves, nor from MoveOn.org or sympathizers like Ms. Goldberg.)

But the fact that Ms. Goldberg concedes here — that the current redistricting fight is about the seats of "white, moderate Democratic incumbents" — is the least widely known and most misunderstood fact of the whole fight.  And the very next sentence of her article is even more stunning:

The GOP proposal would redraw the state's legislative boundaries so that minorities are concentrated into a few districts, likely leading to a net increase in the number of minority members of Congress.

(Emphasis by Beldar.)  Hello?  Did you catch that?  The Ten Truant Texas Dems™ fled the state to prevent a net increase in the number of minority members of Congress.  Ms. Goldberg calls this the "great irony of this whole imbroglio," but perhaps it's not "an irony," but a central fact!  If it's merely an "irony," then yes, this must be a very subtle anti-minority plot indeed. 

How is it supposed to work?  "[T]he voting power of blacks and Latinos would likely be diluted in other districts, giving Republicans a net gain of as many as seven seats," says Ms. Goldberg, which is why

Texas Democrats insist that the Republican redistricting plan is a deviously clever update on the party's old-fashioned divide-and-conquer Southern strategy. The Republican plan, Democrats argue, would redraw the boundaries so that blocs of Hispanic and black voters would shift from districts where they've voted in coalitions with white Democrats and independents into solidly Republican suburban districts, where their influence will be almost meaningless.

Okay.  There's the nub of it.  The plot against minority voting rights has nothing to do with "majority-minority" districts, but boils down to redrawing boundaries where Democrats — white ones, black ones, Hispanic ones — are currently sufficiently concentrated that when they all join together, they can continue to elect "moderate white Democratic incumbents," if just barely.  Well how'd that situation come about?  By accident?

Hell, no!  The way those concentrations were achieved was by over-packing Republicans into an even smaller number of highly-concentrated Republican districts back in 1991 — which, amazingly enough, Ms. Goldberg also admits much later in her article, when she quotes Rob Richie, whom she identifies as the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy: 

Texas Republicans have a point that the current congressional map doesn't reflect Texas' voting patterns, Richie says. More than 50 percent of Texans voted for Republican congressional representatives in the last election, but Republicans won just 15 seats, while Democrats took 17. (Of course, given the last presidential election, there's something audacious about Republicans arguing that the system is invalid because its party won the popular vote in Texas but lost the electoral vote.) The Democrats dominate, says Richie, because of the electoral maps that state Democrats drew in 1991.

A panel of Texas judges redrew those maps in 2001, after statehouse Republicans blocked passage of a new map drawn by Democrats, who were then a majority. Republicans defended those court-drawn maps, which gave their party two extra seats, from a challenge in U.S. Supreme Court brought by civil rights groups, who said the map was unfair to minorities. Nevertheless, that round of redistricting didn't reverse all the advantages Democrats had built into the system in 1991.

Indeed, Richie calls the Texas Democrats' 1991 maps the most effective gerrymandering of that decade in the nation....

We'll charitably pass by Ms. Goldberg's parenthetical non sequitur about "electoral votes," which play no part in Congressional or state elections; in 2000, Dubya won both the popular vote in Texas and (of course, therefore) its electoral votes, so I have no clue what "audacity" she's talking about. 

With respect to the other comments she attributes to Mr. Richie, though, the Balderas v. Texas decision in fact didn't reverse any of the advantages that the Democrats "built into the system in 1991" because the panel left untouched all majority-minority districts created in 1991 and then ensured that no incumbents were likely to be unseated — and there were still more incumbent Democrats than Republicans.  The Balderas panel recognized that what it was doing had a pro-Democratic effect, even though that effect wasn't intentional on its part.

So what's the beef?  C'mon, Michelle — get to the plot part!  How's it work?

In exchange for two new minority members of Congress, Democrats say, blacks and Hispanics would lose a handful of white members whose voting records are relatively well-ranked by civil rights groups.

Oh.  I see.  And it's just a coincidence that those same white Congressmen have a moderate-to-liberal record on all other issues?  Everyone knows that it's only the rankings of civil rights groups that count — it couldn't be possible that Texans would care whether, for instance, their Congressmen were supporting our native-son President on foreign policy issues after 9/11?  Or on tax cuts and other economic policy?

The argument that a handful of sympathetic white congressmen beats two minority representatives would sound grossly self-serving if put forth by the white congressmen themselves. But the main proponents of that argument are the Texas 11.

Again, we'll ignore the fact that they're down to ten.  But let's not ignore all the other facts.  Let's notice, for example, that just as Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other national Republicans may be interested in the outcome of this battle, so too are the white incumbent Democratic Congressmen whose seats are on the line.  Was it coincidence that when Sen. John Whitmire returned to Houston last week, he was met at the airport by Congressman Gene Green?  Do you not think Congressman Martin Frost — the mastermind behind the 1991 pro-Democrat gerrymander — no longer cares about his own seat?  And is it a fluke that the lawyers representing the Ten Truant Texas Dems™ in their Laredo lawsuit were hired by the Democratic Congressional delegation, not by the Texas Senators themselves?

As we say in Texas, "I was born at night.  But not last night."

[B]y targeting white congressmen elected by coalitions of minorities and white Democrats, the Republicans have found a way to disenfranchise minorities without violating civil rights laws that prohibit states from gerrymandering electoral districts on racial lines.

"Disenfranchising minorities" is of course a nicely loaded term, but it literally means preventing someone from voting.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed because Southerners were "disenfranchising minorities" with "subtle plots" like lynching them when they tried to vote.  But that act also prohibits acts and practices that have the intent or the effect of substantially harming minority voting rights, and Ms. Goldberg accuses the Republicans of being "subtle" enough to avoid doing that.  So what we're left with is this argument:   Anything you do to disadvantage white incumbent Democratic Congressmen is a racist plot, because those white boys are friendly to minorities, and in fact they do a better job of representing minority points of view than would additional Congressmen who are actually minority members themselves.

Right.  Gotcha.  I have just experienced an epiphany as to the full meaning of the term "diversity."

But ... but ... Is there actually any evidence — you know, facts and stuff — that this is all racially motivated?  Well, sez Ms. Goldberg, you have to be "attuned to the signals":

One might think the senators were being oversensitive, even paranoid, if a key Republican operative hadn't confirmed their suspicions that Republicans, led by Rove and DeLay, are playing a devious race card.

In May, the Denver Post reported on GOP attack dog Grover Norquist's strategy, saying, "The GOP can live with urban liberals, such as [California Rep. Maxine] Waters; it's moderates such as [Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie] Stenholm who are its main target." If the Texas redistricting plan is adopted, Norquist was quoted saying, "it is exactly the Stenholms of the world who will disappear, the moderate Democrats. They will go so that no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior."

For those attuned to the signals, Norquist's message was clear — redistricting would drive Southern whites out of the Democratic Party. In July, he went further, telling the New York Times that Sheila Jackson-Lee, a African-American congresswoman from Texas, "will be the spokesman for the Democratic Party."

"Basically you'll be labeled a nigger-lover if you're a Democrat," [Garnet] Coleman [a Democratic state representative from Houston] says of the Republican plan. "We've already been through those times. It's all part of the Southern strategy."

Aha.  Well, now it's clear.  If you're "attuned to the signals," you'll understand that the millions of Texas voters who voted Republican in 2002 — who put both chambers of the state legislature into Republican hands, along with both the governorship and lieutenant-governorship, for the first time since Reconstruction — were all actually mindless, thoughtless robots doing the bidding of Grover Norquist.  (Never mind that not one Texas voter in 20 or probably 50 could tell you who Grover Norquist is.)  And when Mr. Norquist says he's out to make the "moderate Democrats" like Charlie Stenholm disappear, it's not possible that it's Charlie Stenholm's voting record which he objects to.  No, it's that Charlie Stenholm is a friend to minorities, that's the only possible objection any Republican could have to him

So, you see, the proof is in the subtext of what Grover Norquist said, as quoted in a Colorado newspaper.  Yes indeedy, that is conclusive and indisputable proof that Texas redistricting is really about labeling white Democrats as ....

Well, I can't quite bring myself to type that odious phrase; it's bad enough to have cut-and-pasted it.  But you'll know what I meant — if you're "attuned to the signals."

"Our Senate colleagues, they think we did this for show. They're very uncomfortable every time we bring up the black or Hispanic issue," says Van De Putte. "But this is about the consolidation of power and trying to direct control of the U.S. House for the next 20 years."

Umm.  Sen. Van de Putte, it's actually about who Texas elects in the next four Congressional elections (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010) before the 2010 Census and another round of redistricting in 2011.  Maybe your colleagues are uncomfortable because they don't want to point out your math deficiencies.  Or maybe they're uncomfortable because you're accusing them — without evidence, and indeed contrary to the evidence! — of being racists.  That might do it.

No Republicans returned calls for this story. But the redistricting standoff comes at a time when blacks and Latinos are on track to become majorities in Texas, leading some Texas Democrats to believe Republicans are using redistricting to limit the effect of demographic changes. One exiled Democrat recalls the candid comment of a Republican colleague: "We have 10 years until Hispanics take over."

That's just delicious.  I've been meaning to explain, Ms. Goldberg, why I didn't return your call .... But, yup, you caught us, there's obviously no Republican anywhere who can refute what you've written.  And that line from an unidentified Democrat about an unidentified Republican ... man, that is powerful evidence.  Stronger'n train smoke.   That pretty well nails us, every one of us, on just about any issue for that matter, and at any time and place.  I don't understand why this little nugget wasn't a New York Times headline for six weeks running.

Ya know, I wonder now why Ms. Goldberg bothered to write this whole article.  Anyone who's "attuned to the signals" already knows that all Texas Republicans are hard-core racists.  That would run from Dubya down to the peach-fuzz-cheeked members of the Sam Houston State University Young Republicans.  And of course we can't leave out Presidential Counsel and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales (Hispanic) or current Texas Supreme Court Justices Dale Wainwright and Wallace Jefferson (both black).  I suspect Rep. Coleman can come up with some nice terms to describe them as well.

If you're sufficiently "attuned to the signals," you don't need or want facts — or screeds like Ms. Goldberg's — anyway.


UPDATE (Sun Sep 14 @ 7:30pm):   Even when he or she disagrees with you, it's always flattering to have something you've written read closely and discussed at length by another blogger, especially one as articulate as Ginger Stampley, who blogs in the cleverly named Perverse Access Memory.  I appreciate her taking the time and trouble to write and to link here via a Trackback. 

Is it "all about race" if it's about white incumbents?

Ms. Stampley writes:

One of the things that amuses me about Beldar’s comments is that when it’s about white representatives, it’s not about race. I can’t decide whether this blind spot is deliberate or not. To Republican strategists, it’s never about race, except when somebody who isn’t white points out that white people are stomping their metaphorical dick and does something about it. Then it’s anti-white racism and reverse discrimination.

Of course, my original piece started with Ms. Goldberg's use of the phrase "it's all about race" — but I'll plead guilty to some imprecise language.  As I originally stated, it's no accident that the Congressional districts being most heavily targeted for change in the Republicans' proposed redistricting plans are those with Anglos incumbents, and to that extent, I agree that the Republicans' redistricting efforts are indeed "about race."  But that's not because of an intent to discriminate against any members of minority races, which was very clearly what Ms. Goldberg meant when she said that redistricting was "all about race." 

To the extent that the Republicans' redistricting proposals discriminate against Anglos, I actually do agree that is unfortunate — even though I don't have much personal sympathy for these "good ole [white] boys" as the victims of this reverse discrimination.  But it's a discrimination that is effectively mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which makes those districts the only ones that are "up for grabs," so to speak.  So what Ms. Stampley characterizes as a "blind spot," I'd characterize instead as recognizing the practical political realities imposed by the Act.

Is it all about making people believe "white = Republican"?

Ms. Stampley also asserts that "[t]he goal of Republican strategists in Texas is to make every Democratic face in the statehouse and in the Congress black or brown," and says that she doesn't "like the idea that white liberals have no place at the table in Texas. And that is a message of this redistricting effort:   White=Republican." 

I certainly agree that such a message would be profoundly offensive.  However, the only people I see who are trumpeting that message are Democrats like State Rep. Garnet Coleman, an example of whose extremely distasteful rhetoric is quoted in Ms. Goldberg's article. 

And it's quite odd to hear Dems make this "white flight" argument at the same time they're ridiculing past and persisting efforts by the Republicans to attract minority candidates and voters — especially Hispanics who tend to be conservative on "culture war" issues.  Again, consider the 2002 elections in which two black Republicans won seats on the Texas Supreme Court, and a Hispanic Republican candidate was favored by party officials (but lost, to their chagrin, in the primary).  That's supposed to send a message from the Republican Party that "white = Republican"?

Is it all about drawing up districts on the basis of race, or on the basis of voting patterns?

Ms. Stampley concedes that "yes, the Republican party will gladly take your money and your vote if you are black or brown."  I think she's right about that, and I'd add that the Republican party will gladly consider what Congressional district you should be included in based on how you and your neighbors are voting, without regard for whether you're black, brown, or any other color.

With all due respect, Ms. Stampley comes up with no more evidence — facts, examples, specifics other than innuendo and presumptions of bigotry — than Ms. Goldberg did.  Ms. Goldberg says you have to be "attuned to the signals"; Ms. Stampley says "it takes blinders to miss it."  Okay, maybe I'm not attuned and I'm wearing blinders.  So help me out:   point me to the evidence of racial discrimination.  Ms. Stampley mentions an effort to "get blacks in Ft. Bend County out of Tom DeLay’s district to keep it safe for him."  I don't know what specific proposals have been made with respect to Mr. DeLay's district, but if what Ms. Stampley says is so, then where's the evidence that it's those voters' race — as opposed to their liberal politics — that is the motivation?  To ask it a slightly different way, is there any evidence — not speculation, not innuendo, but actual evidence, either direct or circumstantial — that it's those voters' race, rather than their past voting patterns, that's motivating any changes that are being proposed with respect to the Congressional district they'll next vote in?

Direct evidence of public racism is, I'll admit, hard to find; a politician who harbors racist views would be stupid to reveal them by admission or by other direct evidence (Cruz Bustamante's "slips of the tongue" notwithstanding).  But if race really is driving the decisionmaking, and not voting histories, then you ought to be able to find some examples of folks whose districts are being switched in a way that is irrational, inefficient, and inexplicable on the basis of their voting histories.  When and if you find that, if those voters are also members of minority groups, then you'd have at least circumstantial evidence of racism.  So, are there any such examples?  If so, I've yet to see them documented.

Does it make political common sense for redistricting to be all about race or racism?

I don't doubt the sincerity of either Ms. Goldberg's or Ms. Stampley's beliefs that — evidence or the lack thereof notwithstanding — some or most of the Republicans pressing for redistricting are motivated by racism, or at a minimum are consciously taking advantage of others' racism.  But that's all they have — a sincere but essentially unsupported belief that someone else is a bigot. 

Neither I nor anyone else can directly disprove that.  All I can say with any certainty is that I'm a Republican who's pressing for redistricting too; I can see inside my own heart, and I'm very comfortable that racism isn't any part of my motivation. 

But I can make an argument based on reason and inference.  If your goal is to gerrymander for the purpose of undoing a previous gerrymander and to benefit your own party with the new one, then in counting and classifying the blips on the map that you're trying to draw Congressional district boundaries around, it would be entirely reasonable to consider those blips' voting histories and trends, and to aggregate them based on that.  You can say, "The blips in this precinct pretty much have been straight-ticket [Democrats/Republicans], whereas the blips in this precinct have been ticket-splitters tending toward [Democrats/Republicans] on national and statewide races, but toward [Republicans/Democrats] on more local races."  I believe that the Republicans who are drawing up various maps have that goal, and I presume that they're going about it in a reasonable and efficient manner — reasonable, at least, if you accept as a given that partisan gerrymandering is both legal and customary — so I infer that they're looking at those blips' voting histories and trends pretty much to the exclusion of any other data about them. 

If you had no data about voting histories and trends, but did have data about race, then perhaps it would be reasonable to use race as a proxy based on statistically significant correlations between race and voting histories and trends.  But we do have very particularized data on voting histories and trends on a precinct-by-precinct basis now, and by contrast, the race-based correlations are imperfect and quite probably growing weaker.  One could also presumably develop data about concentration of Chevrolets versus Fords versus Toyotas on a precinct-by-precinct basis, and there might be some correlation between that and voting patterns; but why would I use that data as a proxy either?  If your goal in politics is to get yourself and members of your party elected, then it doesn't make sense to base your redistricting decisions on race, no moreso than it would to base your decisions on voters' car brands or household income or SAT scores — if you're deciding based on any of those characteristics, you're passing up a more effective and direct means to your goal.

No one can dispute that in days past, there were Anglo legislators whose irrational, racist desire to suppress political participation by either blacks or Hispanics predominated over their desire to see themselves or members of their own political party elected.  I doubt if many lynching parties stopped to ask their victims whether they intended to vote Republican or Democrat, and their basis for selecting those victims was emphatically racial and racist. 

But with all due respect for the sincere contrary beliefs of Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Stampley, I have no reason to believe that many, if any, of today's Texas politicians are being driven by those ugly motives.  I'm loathe to make that presumption because I know it's false in my own case, and because I think better of the modern American character, and because I've seen no current evidence to support it, and because it runs contrary to political common sense and efficiency. 

So I continue to believe that Texas redistricting is not all about, or even mostly about, racism.  There's no good reason for it to be about that — unless your party is in the minority, and you're desperately looking for some basis, any basis, to win either a PR battle or one in the courts that you can't win through democratic means in the Legislature.

Posted by Beldar at 08:59 PM in Texas Redistricting | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to It's all about making people think it's all about race: Fisking Michelle Goldberg's Salon article on Texas redistricting and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» It's Not About Race from PubliusTX Weblog

Tracked on Sep 13, 2003 12:15:38 AM

» Fear of a Black (and Brown) Party from Perverse Access Memory

Tracked on Sep 13, 2003 10:03:31 PM


(1) Tom McDonald made the following comment | Sep 12, 2003 4:09:12 PM | Permalink

What a breath of fresh air amid the wasteland of liberal blogs and news sites!

According the Dems, you can't ever do anything that would ever result in fewer Dems getting elected, or it's racism. Been waiting for someone to call them on this. Thanks.

The comments to this entry are closed.