As the black community reeled in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court rulings striking down race-based congressional districts as unconstitutional, Jewish leaders found themselves in a bind.
Their problem: how to weigh their support for the principle behind the ruling – that race should not be a predominant criterion in the electoral process – against concerns of inflaming tensions between blacks and Jews.
In a pair of 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court struck down down plans for one congressional district in North Carolina and three in Texas.
The high court ruled, as it did in weighing similar cases in 1993, that race played too great a role in drawing the boundaries of the so-called “majority- minority” districts.
As black leaders described the rulings in cataclysmic terms, most Jewish groups stepped cautiously around the issue of racial gerrymandering.
In one carefully worded statement, the American Jewish Congress said there is “much to commend” in the decisions, adding that there is a need to “devise political methods that do not induce the electorate to make its judgments along racial lines.”
At the same time, the group stated that minorities are likely to see the rulings “as a sign that they are not welcome in the political process.”
“Such alienation, if it takes hold, would have a corrosive effect on intergroup relations, and, indeed, on the entirety of American democracy,” the group also said.
Only the Anti-Defamation League came out strongly in favor of the rulings.
Most Jewish groups decided to steer clear of the issue.
Even the Religious Action Center of Reform judaism, which has long supported black-Jewish relations and whose director, Rabbi David Saperstein, sits on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, remained quiet.
But the highly contentious debate between blacks and Jews over race-based redistricting, like long-standing disagreements over affirmative action, has nonetheless become another irritant in relations between the two communities.
“I would have hoped that given the experience of Jews with anti-Semitism and their recognition of the significance of history, that they – the Jews who have opposed us on this issue – would have found their way to take another position,” said Ted Shaw, associate director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Black leaders say they do not want to single out Jewish groups for particular disagreements.
But it is clear that the lack of jewish support for the black community in this case is particularly troubling to some black leaders in light of the historic alliance between the two communities on civil rights matters.
“The differences on this particular issue don’t help the alliance to the extent that the alliance still exists,” Shaw said in an interview.
But he added, “I think it’s a mistake to paint with too broad a brush and say there’s indeed an uncrossable divide or this permanent rift between blacks and Jews.”
The high court’s decision, meanwhile, is likely to have a direct impact on the future racial makeup of Congress, though is not clear whether the districts will be redrawn in time for November’s election.
After the 1990 census, states such as Texas and North Carolina carved out majority-black and majority-Hispanic districts to give minority voters greater electoral influence.
As a result, the number of blacks serving in Congress rose from 26 in 1990 to 39 in 1992 and to 41 in 1994.
Now, with blacks almost certain to lose seats as a result of the ruling, discussion has turned to the extent to which black candidates can appeal to white voters.
Many Jews are troubled by the presumption that only a member of a certain race can represent constituents of that same race. They see it as antitheticla to the goals of a society that should be blind to racial classifications.
They point to several instances of a majority of white voters electing blacks officials, such as Douglas Wilder as governor of Virginia, Carol Moseley-Braun as a senator from Illinois and Gary Franks and J.C. Watts as representatives from Connecticut and Oklahoma, respectively.
“In the long run, the principle of removing race will serve us all,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.
Shaw of the NAACP doesn’t see it that way.
“Race continues to be an important reality in this country and there are many who want to deny that and want to wish our way into color blindness, as if it has been achieved,” he said.
Jews, Shaw added, might look at the issue of redistricting differently if they had not achieved their own electoral successes.
He noted that while there are now 10 Jewish senators, only two blacks have served in the Senate this century.
Jews account for slightly more than 2 percent of the population, but hold about 6 percent of the seats in Congress. Blacks, by contrast, make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but hold only 7 percent of the voting seats in Congress.
Shaw said he believes that Jews “are speaking from an experience in which they are included in the white majority, even though they have been victims of anti- Semitism.”
The rulings on race-based redistricting are not expected to have an impact on Jewish voters or the election of Jewish lawmakers.
In contrast, one former Jewish congressman from New York, Rep. Stephen Solarz, lost his last race in 1992, when the composition of hid district was altered to include a majority of Hispanic voters.
Despite the clear divide between blacks and Jews over redistricing, at least one observer said he did not see the rift adding any new dimensions to the relationship between the two communities.
Murray Friedman, the author of “What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance,” said the two groups have known about their disagreements on racially charged issues such as affirmative action and redistricting for quite some time.
The current fracture between the two communities over redistricting, Friedman added, “doesn’t hold a candle to the acrimony that broke out in the ’70s when the first affirmative action decisions were handed down.”
In the interests of maintaining good relations, black and Jewish leaders say they will probably continue to agree to disagree on race-based redistricting, as they have on a number of contentious issues.
“We don’t have to necessarily agree,” said the ADL’s Foxman, “but what we need is an understanding of where we come from.”