In the Arena

It’s Not Race, It’s Longevity

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I  have a certain weakness for Charlie Rangel. He’s a stone, flat-out war hero–his service in frigid Korea, during a terrible moment in that war, in an Army that was just learning how to integrate (in other words, an institution that was still racist in many ways)–has always earned him some extra tolerance from me, even if his brand of politics was classic, troglyditic inner city cronyism. I’ve also loved his gravelly New York accent–he’s family!–and his flash dress and his sly sense of humor (and his insistence on the restitution of the draft, so that rich and upper middle class kids help bear the brunt of the fighting in America’s endless wars–or, by using their class-based megaphone, end them).

But he’s a crook. No getting around it. And his brand of politics–the Harlem Clubhouse patronage and condescension machine–has, arguably, diminished the chances of success, and increased a culture of dependency, for many of his constituents over the past 50 years.

I know less about Maxine Waters–but I do know she’s cut from the same political cloth as Rangel and, at times, has been prone to make extreme racialist statements. But, as with Rangel, the most important thing about Waters isn’t her race, it’s the fact that she is perpetually unchallenged in her district. Rangel and Waters are exemplars of the greatest problem facing our Congress–and therefore our democracy–which is the high-tech gerrymandering of safe seats on both sides of the aisle. That is why they don’t give a fig about the Democratic Party’s fate in the fall. They haven’t had to trim their sails to meet the challenges of real democracy. 

Imagine what sort of legislator Charlie Rangel would have been if his district ran north to south–incorporating Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side–rather than East to West, keeping him safe in Harlem. A different one–a more creative and responsive one–to be sure. And then extrapolate that across the breadth of the Congress: more than 15 years ago, I wrote a column about how inner city blacks and suburban Republicans in Georgia had colluded to create a map after the 1990 census that created safe seats for themselves, and destroyed those districts where Representatives (white Democrats, mostly) had to appeal to both constituencies to win. Cynthia McKinney, then a Congresswoman from Georgia whose seat had been carved out in the deal, accused me of racism. But the truth was that the deal–which her father, a power in the state legislature, helped to cut–had created a net gain of safe Republican seats.

Now we’re on the cusp of another redistricting. State legislators across the country will be using sophisticated computer programs across the country to do violence to natural geography, to create districts that look like spiders and neural clusters, in order preserve the fiefdoms of the current incumbents. The process will reinforce the sense of entitlement, and racial politics, of people like Rangel and Waters; it will increase the likelihood that suburban Republicans need only to play to the Tea Party know-nothings in their districts. It will increase the polarization and sense of gridlock–and anger–across the country.

It would be nice if we had a national legislature that was mapped out rationally, according to natural geographic borders. It would be, I believe, the most direct path to a political system run for the benefit of the public, rather than for the regal longevity of its politicians. But, absent a Supreme Court ruling that strikes down racial gerrymandering, I don’t see that happening.