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Has the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of American civil rights legislation, become a period piece that today serves to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics-precisely the opposite of what its framers intended? Abigail Thernstrom, vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, answers this question and more in her provocative new book, Voting Rights--and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections (AEI Press, June 2009)-a legal and political analysis of the forty-year history of the Voting Rights Act.
The act's original aim was simple: to give African Americans the same political opportunity enjoyed by other citizens-the chance to vote, form political coalitions, and elect the candidates of their choice. But southern resistance to black political power prompted a process of radical revisions to the act in order to ensure the election of blacks and Hispanics. Proportional racial representation-equality of results rather than mere equal opportunity-became the goal. Today, majority-minority districts do reserve seats for blacks and Hispanics and have succeeded in integrating southern politics-but at a cost. Those "max-black" districts discourage the development of centrist, "postracial" candidates like Barack Obama (who was defeated when he stood for Congress in one such district). Such race-conscious districting typically elects candidates to the left of most voters who are rarely able to run in majority-white settings. In fact, they perversely limit the potential power of black officeholders.
At this discussion of Voting Rights--and Wrongs, Thernstrom will be joined by Michael A. Carvin, a distinguished voting rights attorney, and New York University School of Law professor Richard H. Pildes, one of the nation's leading voting rights scholars. This event took place on June 11, 2009.