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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction
J. Morgan Kousser

(Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
Pp.590. ISBN 0 8078 4738 0.

In August 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Widely regarded as the high watermark of the struggle against racial inequality in the United States, the act sought to empower a black population that had been stripped of its political rights since the late nineteenth century. By 1990 the number of adult blacks registered to vote had reached rough parity with whites, 59 per cent compared to 64 per cent. During the 1970s and 1980s Congress extended the act to allow for the redrawing of electoral district lines. The intention was to ensure that African Americans and other racial minorities underrepresented in the political system had an opportunity to elect their own representatives. As a result, the United States witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of black elected officials.

Yet in more recent years the political tide has turned with a powerful vengeance. In 1993 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of North Carolina whites who argued that they had been effectively disenfranchised by the redrawing of electoral district lines. According to decision reached in Shaw v. Reno, preferential treatment for African Americans reinforces the racial divisions that the civil rights struggle sought to eradicate. Officials elected in such districts would consider it their sole interest to represent the needs of their black constituents. In the opinion of the court this could only impede the already slow and painful progress towards a colourblind society.

Yet according to J. Morgan Kousser the decision sets a dangerous political precedent and should be reversed. Shaw v. Reno represents a conservative counter revolution that threatens to destroy the victories of the civil rights movement. Kousser condemns the court for having established a blatant double standard. In the wake of the decision, disenchanted whites only have to establish that some racial distinction was made in the redrawing of electoral district lines. Minorities must demonstrate not that racial discrimination is not only the effect but the direct intent of redistricting. As Kousser demonstrates through a series of case studies this is almost impossible to prove since redistricters resort to any number of devious practices in order to disguise their motivations. The consequence of the decision is therefore that in future the redrawing of electoral district lines will restore white political supremacy and marginalise minority representation. This is a brilliantly researched and passionately argued work of public history that powerfully demonstrates the lessons of the past to throw light on contemporary political issues.

Clive Webb
University of Reading

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