Synopses & Reviews
The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of American civil rights legislation. Its passage marked the death knell of the Jim Crow South. But that was the beginning, not the end, of an important debate on race and representation in American democracy. When is the distribution of political power racially fair? Who counts as a representative of black and Hispanic interests? How we answer such questions shapes our politics and public policy in profound but often unrecognized ways. The actOs original aim was simple: Give African Americans the same political opportunity enjoyed by other citizens_the chance to vote, form political coalitions, and elect the candidates of their choice. But in the racist South, it soon became clear that access to the ballot would not, by itself, provide the political opportunity the statute promised. Most southern whites were unwilling to vote for black candidates, and southern states were ready to alter electoral systems to maintain white supremacy. In this provocative book, Abigail Thernstrom argues that southern resistance to black political power began a process by which the act was radically revised both for good and ill. Congress, the courts, and the Justice Department altered the statute to ensure the election of blacks and Hispanics to legislative bodies ranging from school boards and county councils to the U.S. Congress. Proportional racial representation_equality of results rather than mere equal opportunity_became the revised aim of the act. Blacks came to be treated as politically different_entitled to inequality in the form of a unique political privilege. Majority-minority districts that reserved seats for blacks and Hispanics succeeded in integrating southern politics. By now, however, those districts may perversely limit the potential power of black officeholders. OMax-blackO districts typically elect candidates to the left of most voters; those officeholders rarely win in majority-white settings. Such race-conscious districting discourages the development of centrist, Opost-racialO candidates like Barack Obama (who was defeated when he stood for Congress in one such district). The Voting Rights Act has become a period piece that today serves to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics_precisely the opposite of what its framers intended. A radically revised law would better serve the political interests of all Americans_minority and white voters alike.
In Voting Rights-and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections, Abigail Thernstrom explores the complex issues raised by the Voting Rights Act today. Thernstrom celebrates the landmark 1965 law that opened southern voting booths to African Americans-while challenging its evolution into a tool to create a racially fair distribution of political power. Federal law now requires states to draw majority-minority legislative districts, giving minority voters a uniquely sheltered status. Color-conscious policies were morally justified when the only alternative was the perpetuation of all-white or overwhelmingly white legislatures. Today, such race-conscious districting may create less-rather than more-integrated politics.