If you are looking for symbolic stories from the battle for civil rights, it’s hard to beat Terri Sewell, an African-American woman born in Selma, in 1965, exactly one day before Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in the city to help organize efforts to win the vote. Fifty years later, Sewell now represents Selma and surrounding communities in Congress.
Her story is hardly unique, however. In the five decades since the bloody crackdown at the Edmund Pettus Bridge helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Act has been the catalyst for a veritable revolution in the number of African-Americans and other minorities serving in office at all levels. Before the Voting Rights Act, there were fewer than 1,000 non-white elected officials in the United States. Today, there are more than 17,000.
But if there was a representation revolution, it also very much has been an incomplete one — and one increasingly being tested on various fronts.
Indeed, for all the lauded gains, African-Americans still make up only 5.7 percent of elected officials at the local level, despite constituting 12.5 percent of eligible voters. The nation’s fast-growing Latino population is even further behind — according to one recent report, only 3.3 percent of local officeholders are Latino even though Latinos made up a record 10.7 percent of the country’s citizen voting age population in 2014.
The reasons for this disparity, of course, are complex. In some places, African-Americans and Latinos are successfully using their political power to elect white candidates who understand their communities’ needs and priorities — and are willing to fight for them. In New York City, a remarkably diverse coalition came together to elect Bill de Blasio mayor in 2013. Progress in other parts of the country has been more halting. In much of the country, sharp polarization along racial and ethnic lines continues to define politics. This is especially so in the South where even in non-partisan local elections — or in party primaries — white and black voters prefer very different candidates. By some measures, in fact, that polarization has gotten worse in recent years. When combined with the fact that many Americans still largely live and socialize in ethnically defined bubbles, it can be hard for the very real needs of non-white communities to get a full hearing from fellow voters and for non-white voters to form the coalitions needed to elect candidates who will represent their interests.
The Voting Rights Act has offered a powerful tool for combatting this marginalization. Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of suits increasingly forced local governments to end the use of at-large elections and to move to single-member districts. With that came a dramatic rise in the number of seats where minority communities for the first time were able to control the outcome of elections. In fact, it is arguable that use of the VRA to compel creation of majority-minority districts — where polarization otherwise would have locked minorities out of the political process — has been as important as the elimination of voting barriers in the 1960s in ensuring that diverse communities are represented at the table.
But Ferguson, Missouri, shows how incomplete the progress has been, even 50 years after the Voting Rights Act. Minority voters there recently filed suit to compel the Ferguson-Florissant school district to adopt single-member districts, noting that the district, which is 77 percent African-American, had only one African-American trustee among its seven members. The City of Ferguson, likewise, uses three fairly large-sized districts to elect its six council members (each district electing two members but in different years). The practical effect of that electoral arrangement is that African-American voters have to form a coalition with white voters in order to elect a candidate since the lingering effects of discrimination mean that African-American registration and turnout rates in places like Ferguson are still much lower than those of whites. That can be a challenge in a world where racial groups rarely mix on an equal basis. And for candidates from minority communities, mustering the resources to try to break down those barriers can be an added — in many cases insurmountable — challenge.
Fifty years after Selma, the representation revolution also is coming under threat from some unexpected sources. These include use of the Voting Rights Act by white officials as an excuse to disadvantage minority voters. That’s what African-American voters in Alabama say happened when their legislature, controlled by whites, redrew districts to pack African Americans into legislative districts, citing the supposed requirements of the VRA. That reduced African-American influence in districts where they might not be a majority but had started to show some success in forming viable cross-racial coalitions. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide this term whether that was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Similar claims have been made about maps in North Carolina and Virginia.
For the nation’s growing Latino population, the challenge comes from a different source. States like Texas and Arizona have booming, underrepresented Latino populations that continue to suffer from discrimination and even overt hostility. But, in those states, as in much of the nation, ethnic groups increasingly live interspersed with one another in patchwork quilt fashion, even as they remain socially separated. That makes it harder to draw the majority-minority districts that were so powerful a tool in increasing the voice of African-Americans. The Fifth Circuit, for example, recently rejected efforts by Latino voters in Harris County, Texas, to create a Latino-majority county commission district, saying proposed districts would have been unwieldy and violated the Constitution.
Yet, without such districts, it can be hard to imagine Latino voters in places like Texas gaining adequate representation. Especially in a world where the state’s legislature is currently debating “sanctuary cities” bills and where courts have found that coded racial appeals continue to be very much a part of the state’s politics.
In short, as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, there is much to be vigilant about to ensure that progress toward fair representation continues.