Taking A Closer Look at Race and Redistricting

In Race and Redistricting, Tinsley E. Yarbrough examines the decade-long political and legal struggle over racially gerrymandered voting districts in North Carolina. A distinguished professor of political science at East Carolina University and the author of numerous books and articles on constitutional law and the Supreme Court, Yarbrough provides an engaging and balanced treatment of the complex politics surrounding majority-minority voting districts.

Following the 1990 Census, North Carolina gained one seat in the House of Representatives. Because of its history of racial discrimination, the state fell under provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that any redistricting plan be submitted to the Justice Department for “preclearance” to ensure that minority representation was not undermined.

Under pressure from the Bush administration’s Justice Department, the state legislature created two “majority-minority” voting districts–Districts One and Twelve–that were designed to guarantee minority representation. The Twelfth District was so oddly shaped that it was described by critics as “political pornography.’ Both districts were challenged under the Voting Rights Act and the Fifth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The ensuing litigation resulted in three Supreme Court cases, all of which were decided by 5-4 votes, largely along partisan lines.



A special three-judge district court initially dismissed the lawsuit challenging the districts. On appeal, the Supreme Court in Shaw v. Reno (1993) criticized the shape of the Twelfth District and suggested that packing minority voters into such districts resembled political apartheid. In Shaw v. Hunt (1996), the Court dismissed the challenge to the First District for lack of standing but ruled that the Twelfth District was unconstitutional as a predominant racial gerrymander that could not survive strict scrutiny. Another redistricting plan came under review in Easley v. Cromartie (2001). This time, however, Justice O’Connor voted with the four moderate-liberal justices in holding that the new plan was a predominantly partisan rather than racial gerrymander and thus was not subject to strict judicial scrutiny.

Yarbrough’s narrative is filled with relevant and interesting information on the backgrounds and motivations of individuals and organizations involved in the litigation. Some Republicans favored majority-minority districts because they believed that the remaining districts would be more white and consequently more Republican. Other Republicans, however, opposed them because they were race-conscious and were inconsistent with the principle of a color-blind constitution. Civil rights organizations and many Democrats supported them because they would enhance minority representation.

The book concludes with a review of the scholarly research on the impact of majority-minority voting districts. A useful chronology at the end helps readers follow important events in the protracted litigation. Although written at a level that general readers can comprehend, the detailed treatment of the legal arguments and court opinions may appeal more to scholars or graduate students interested in racial politics and voting rights. The book would be a good supplement for an undergraduate course on constitutional law or for a more specialized class on voting rights at the graduate or law school level.

Yarbrough acknowledges that race-conscious policies, including racially gerrymandered districts, will continue to be controversial. Race and Redistricting is an excellent contribution to the ongoing debate over whether the Constitution can, or should, be colorblind