Black Voters’ Influence Waning

Black Louisiana lawmakers say engaging the white Republican majority is the best way to overcome the marginalization that they feel in this state’s legislature, and that has now been charted in a national report.

“Some issues are party lines, but there can be compromises on some issues,” said Democratic Baton Rouge state Rep. Patricia Smith, who chairs the Louisiana Black Legislative Caucus. “The Republicans are in charge, but we can have an impact.”

State Rep. Rick Gallot, who was elected last month as a state senator, agreed, particularly since white Republicans, whose policy platforms are not generally supported by the black community, now hold majorities in both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature.

Gallot, D-Ruston, said the 20 black state representatives and eight black senators, all Democrats, need to maintain lines of open communications with the 57 Republican representatives in the 105-member House and 22 senators, all white, in the 39-member upper chamber. Both sides need to look for areas where they can agree and maintain lines of open communication when they disagree, he said.

“The numbers speak for themselves in terms of the makeup of the respective bodies and the demographics that make up the districts,” Gallot said.

A recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which describes itself as a black policy issues research group formed in 1970 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, stated that while there are more black state legislators, black voters have less influence than at any time since the Civil Rights era. The reason, according to study author David A. Bositis, is that all but three of the 318 state black legislators in the South are Democrats.

“In the region of the country where most African Americans live, the South, there is strong statistical evidence that politics is resegregating,” Bositis wrote. “And since conservative whites control all the power in the region, they are enacting legislation that is neglectful of the needs of African Americans (in health care, in education, in criminal justice policy) as well as outright hostile to them, as in the assault on voting rights through photo identification laws and other means.”

Bositis writes, that reapportionment since 1990 packed minorities into legislative districts in which they are the overwhelming majority of voters. This allowed more districts in which the majority of voters are white, he wrote.

Where once black voters were a significant segment of the majority Democratic Party, they now are a significant majority of the minority party. Since the early 1990s, when redistricting court decisions took full effect, Republicans have increased their white membership and have displaced Democrats as the majorities in state legislative bodies, Bositis wrote in his paper, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?”

By 2011, Arkansas was the only state of the old Confederacy in which Republican whites were not in the majority, the brief stated.

“That’s one of the costs of putting all your political capital in a single party,” Merle Black, an Emory University professor researching the rise of the GOP in the South said.

“When the Democrats were in power, there was a period there when black lawmakers were very influential,” Black said.

“A lot of black lawmakers brought this on themselves by insisting on creating districts with overwhelming African-American majorities,” said Alfred L. Samuel, a political science professor at the Southern University Baton Rouge campus. This ensured a black would be elected but dispersed the number of black voters who could influence elections in other districts, he said.

Packing majority-minority districts with minorities created a situation that made it more difficult for white Democrats running on a progressive platform, Samuels said.

Conservative candidates, safe in districts with few minority voters, can focus on majority voter wants without having to balance minority voter needs, he said. “There is no consequence for ignoring African Americans,” Samuels said.

G. Pearson Cross, the head of the political science department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said influence is relative. Before the 1970s, black voters had little or no voice in politics. Only after the Voting Rights Act did blacks acquire influence, much of it as a coalition within the Democratic Party, he said.

“The present system poses real problems, but on the other hand African Americans have a louder voice than they ever had in history,” Cross said. The numbers are not so overwhelming that white Republicans have carte blanche, he said. Republicans would need 70 in the Louisiana House and 26 in the state Senate.

He pointed to the effort last session to merge Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans. The Black Caucus, led by Rep. Smith, added enough support to its numbers to block the effort, which needed a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

“I suspect that will continue to be the case as long as they can find some members they can split off from outside their caucus,” Cross said. “On goal line stand issues, they can probably pull it all together. But on the standard meat-and-potato issues, they will have little impact.”