Might as well get used to it: A state tries to protect its minority voters' rights, its state Supreme Court upholds that effort, then the US Supreme Court, led by judicial activist Antonin Scalia, steps up to preserve the white, conservative status quo. The only difference is that this time, the GOP has its own Justice Department to bolster its scheme.
States' rights issues are starting to look mighty different under the new Bush federalism. A Bush-Scalia-Pickering axis has just won a battle to ensure that black voting strength continues to be diluted here in Mississippi, where African American population is growing &emdash; up to 36.3% in the 2000 census &emdash; while white population is down to 61.4% from 63.5% in 1990. From where I sit near downtown Jackson, this population shift is a positive development. Progressive Mississippians have long joked that we just have to wait until more of those old evil racist coots die off and then we can mothball that Dixie swastika and do a better job at redemption.
But the status quo is hedging against those population shifts. Last week, Scalia joined the Bush Justice Department to help Rep. Chip Pickering, the son of the besieged Judge Charles Pickering Sr., keep his congressional seat and oust Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows, who currently represents part of majority black Jackson. We're losing one of our congressional districts because we're not growing fast enough &emdash; seems people aren't tripping over themselves to live under our flag. The road to this lynching of states' rights is so Mississippi: all puff and no huff. Our Legislature punted &emdash; as they did with the flag &emdash; and didn't come up with a redistricting plan like the other Southern states managed to. Thus, the responsibility moved to state court, with Chancery Judge Patricia Wise, a black Democrat, getting the case through random assignment (as state columnist and political watcher Bill Minor reminded her foaming-mouth critics in January).
Wise had two redrawn districts to choose from. The Democratic version included 37% minority voters, the GOP plan only 30%. But that's not all: the Republican's plan would preserve 73% of incumbent Pickering's voting base and only 23% of incumbent Shows' voters. The Democrats' version kept 47% of Pickering's base and 45% of Shows'. Wise chose the Democrats' plan and sent it to the Justice Department for approval as required by the 1965 Votings Rights Act.
The Justice Department, in turn, dragged its feet on approval, meaning that it just might have missed the March 1 deadline for new district approval. So a federal three-judge panel (all Republican appointees) last month stepped in and chose the GOP plan. Democrats charged politics and appealed to the US Supreme Court. Then in an all-too-familiar move, Scalia &emdash; who visits the Magnolia state to hunt with Pickering I and presided over Pickering II's 1996 swearing-in &emdash; dismissed the appeal.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger charged conflict of interest, saying Scalia should have recused himself. Of course he should have, but why would he? The post-Goldwater Republican Party is so arrogant about maintaining the white, rich power base that it doesn't even bother to cover up its conflicts of interest. The Bushs, the Cheneys, the Scalias, the Lays, the Pickerings, Clarence Thomas and wife, Colin Powell and son: the incestuous Republican family values couldn't be more blatant either here or nationally.
Meantime, though, Mississippi blacks &emdash; not to mention white progressives &emdash; get screwed. I'm sitting in the most liberal city in the state, the capital, which is about 75% African American and has scores of black city officials, including the mayor. It's the city where the state flag rejected by its voters ends up flying most often. Minority population is growing in the state, with African Americans even contributing to the explosive growth in the Jackson suburbs. But when I vote this November, I will apparently be voting in the state's majority-black Delta district. Under the old districts, my fairly progressive neighborhood had a shot at keeping another seat away from the GOP and was succeeding. Now our crowd has been herded into a token district, important as it is, to dilute the non-GOP vote. After Scalia polished his palm last week, Chip Pickering said: "The district lines may have changed, but Mississippi's conservative values have not, and people know they can count on me to fight for their values." Of course, he meant his base of conservative white folk. And I shudder to think when the clock first started ticking on those values that he says haven't changed. Hopefully, it was sometime after his father transformed his own segregationist values.
If Chip Pickering truly represented the values of Mississippians, not just that of white Mississippians, couldn't he handle a district that was 37% African American, the same as the state's population's percentage? And truth be told, the Democratic alternative, Ronnie Shows, isn't exactly a progressive icon: He only received a 7 out of a possible 100 on an American Civil Liberties Union scorecard, but that beat Pickering's 0. You've got to start somewhere.
Voting records aside, though, this Republican power grab is about diluting voting rights, just as it was in Florida in 2000. Mississippi is still a long way from its black citizens' accomplishments of Reconstruction &emdash; that lasted until state bigots (then Democrats) instituted the Mississippi Plan to intimidate and oust its black elected officials. John Roy Lynch served as US congressman, Blanche K. Bruce became the first black man to serve a full term in the US Senate, and Alexander Davis was lieutenant governor of the state &emdash; until white Democrats impeached him. Today, Mississippians like to brag that we have the largest number of black elected officials of any state. True &emdash; but we have not elected a black official to a statewide office since Reconstruction.
Beyond racism and gerrymandering, part of the reason Mississippi as a whole hasn't elected a black official is low black voter turnout and confidence in much of the state. Lack of political strength breeds apathy. Minority voting dilution is at the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the reason the Justice Department is supposed to be involved in the first place. As the ACLU likes to say, "Race-based problems require race-based solutions." Did then, and do now. Thus, I fully support efforts by my new congressman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, and the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus to hold hearings on the Justice Department's role in this cabal and try to get more representative districts for future elections. Mississippians and outsiders must work together to stop this blatant election theft.
In Mississippi, the battleground has changed slightly, if not the battle. Jackson resident Medgar Evers said in 1963 that "when a black Jacksonian looks about his home community, he sees a city of over 150,000, of which 40% is Negro, in which there is not a single Negro policeman or policewoman, school crossing guard, or fireman." Thanks to former federal governments, we now have black city workers and elected officials and a lot more equality than in 1963. But we have acres to plow before true racial voting equality is achieved in the state of Mississippi. And, thanks to the Bush-Scalia-Pickering triumvirate, we just fell back a few rows.
Donna Ladd (www.donnaladd.com) is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.