This is an opinion column.
Have you ever really looked at Alabama’s 7th Congressional District? It’s Alabama’s only Democratically controlled district, the seat currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell.
It would look like a crumbling staircase across the state’s western midsection, if not for the arm – or is that the finger — reaching up three counties to grab the blackest parts of Birmingham. It features another appendage below the Black Belt that flops to the south to avoid the whitest parts of Clarke County.
It took some conniving to make that map. It’s a district that gathers as many Black people as possible – about 425,000 – and shoves them together as if in a closet. Out of sight, out of mind, out of the way of candidates in other districts who do not want to appeal to them. Or for them.
The map pretty much guarantees District 7 – voters of which are almost two-thirds Black but share little else in common — will have a Black winner. Just as it guarantees the other six districts – ranging from 62 percent to 84 percent white — will have white winners.
Which means a bunch of things.
It means that in a state with 26 percent Black population – not counting those who identify as mixed race – the best one can reasonably expect is Black representation in one out of seven districts. That’s just 14 percent.
It means that none of the districts are truly competitive on issues of race or party.
And it means – maybe this is the most important and insidious thing of all – that to win in any Alabama district the candidates must play to the extremes. So there is more political and racial division. There are more partisan talking points and fewer moments of compromise or understanding.
There is segregation in our governance and segregation in our politics. Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and …
Well maybe not forever.
A lawsuit filed in federal court this week argues that Alabama’s district maps, authorized in 2011, are racially gerrymandered in a way that decreases Black influence. It seeks to have the Legislature enact a new plan using whole county lines to draw the district boundaries. That seems mind-blowing today, with District 7 giving the finger to the people of Jefferson County as it does – but county lines have been used to draw boundaries for most of Alabama history.
“By returning to Alabama’s traditional redistricting principle of aggregating whole counties, Alabama can remedy the existing racial gerrymander, restore a measure of rationality and fairness to Alabama’s Congressional redistricting process, and afford African Americans an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in at least two districts,” the suit argues. “Restoring the integrity of county boundaries will advance the representation of black citizens and, indeed, the fair representation of all Alabamians.”
It’s clear the current districts were drawn with racial intent – which is a problem. But it is also clear that without court intervention it will continue. The Reapportionment Committee met this month, and is expected to recommend a plan that still gives a finger to the state.
Redistricting is hard, because it can end political careers and begin them.
Redistricting is complicated. And often so tedious the only people paying attention are the ones paid to do it, or who benefit from it, who remain in power because of it, or who, in the event of change in district lines, must alter their rhetoric to appeal to people who do not all look and think the same.
Racial gerrymandering doesn’t just hurt Black people – though it does. It hurts all of Alabama, and we are not alone. It has made us more extreme and intolerant. It has made us less likely to see the worth in one another, and less likely to have responsive representation.
Perhaps this suit is a first step.
John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for AL.com.