Minority report: Race and politics in Virginia

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Virginia’s Third Congressional District has been ruled unconstitutional by a panel of federal judges, who said lawmakers unfairly concentrated black voters when redrawing its boundaries. Virginia’s Third Congressional District has been ruled unconstitutional by a panel of federal judges, who said lawmakers unfairly concentrated black voters when redrawing its boundaries.

There is little doubt that the subject of race relations is currently at the forefront of the American conversation. From “hands up, don’t shoot” to “black lives matter” to Starbucks’ condescending, widely derided Race Together campaign (in which a rich white business owner encouraged his majority-minority workforce to converse with coffee-craving customers about skin color), issues like police brutality and institutional prejudice are being vigorously debated across the country.

Unfortunately, Charlottesville recently entered the national conversation in the worst possible way when University of Virginia student Martese Johnson—a black, 20-year-old third-year who serves on the University’s Honor Committee—was confronted by Alcoholic Beverage Control officers after being refused entrance to the Corner’s Trinity Irish Pub and ended up on the ground, bleeding from a head wound while shouting accusations of racism.

Now, it should be noted that Virginia has come a very long way from 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, when the state government argued in front of the Supreme Court that black and white Virginians should not be allowed to marry one another (it lost). But it is equally true that racism, both overt and covert, remains alive and well in the Commonwealth, and manifests itself in ways that—while not as immediately shocking as blood-spattered bricks—undermine the ideals of equality and fairness that should be the hallmark of a just government.

One of the more insidious forms of political discrimination is racial gerrymandering, which uses the state’s redistricting power to shoehorn all voters of a certain ethnicity (usually black) into as few districts as possible. It’s a distressingly common practice, and one that the Supreme Court has done little to curb. That may be changing, however, as there are indications that the Supreme Court might finally be in a mood to curtail some of the most egregious race-based redistricting.

In one recent case, the Supremes rejected an Alabama district court ruling that upheld just such a redistricting scheme, calling it “legally erroneous.” In light of that decision, SCOTUS this week sent back an October ruling by a panel of federal judges that found one of our own U.S. House districts—the Third, currently represented by Democratic Representative Bobby Scott—had been illegally redrawn. The high court lobbed the case back to the panel without comment, but there’s nothing stopping the Supremes from ruling on it if it lands in front of them again.

For their part, Virginia’s politicians are basically ignoring the earlier ruling. In fact, not only did the General Assembly fail to address the problems with the Third District this session, it actually passed a bunch of arguably unconstitutional tweaks to existing districts that sought to make them even less competitive (Governor McAuliffe thankfully vetoed those bills, along with yet another voter identification measure that would disproportionately, and negatively, affect poor and minority voters).

It would be depressing indeed if Virginia ended up on the losing side of yet another historic Supreme Court case involving gross racial inequality. One would hope that, faced with such a prospect, Virginia’s politicians would stand up and do the right thing. But then, one would also hope that those with authority would treat everyone the same regardless of skin color—and we all know how that tends to work out.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-
monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.