That phrase from the U.S. Constitution doesn’t just encapsulate the Founding Fathers’ goal for this ever-evolving union we now call “America.” Aside from Billy Porter’s awards show wardrobe, “more perfect” also describes the 400 years of structural bigotry on this stolen soil.
While many people consider “white supremacy” to be the superlative form of “racism,” the two closely-related terms have different meanings. Racism is a belief but white supremacy is the structural system founded on that idea. Racism hasn’t changed in 400 years but white supremacy is a shape-shifting polymorph. When this country outlawed the chains of chattel slavery, white supremacy mutated into Jim Crow and transformed the American electoral process into a series of poll taxes and literacy tests. When educational institutions integrated, white supremacy built a school-to-prison pipeline. After the civil rights struggle, it embedded itself into the criminal justice system and started a war on drugs. Year by year, day by day, minute by minute, white supremacy in America increasingly grows more perfect.
Republican strategist and political consultant Thomas Hofeller is the most perfect example of this.
Calling Hofeller a “political strategist” or a “political consultant” is like referring to Satan as an “ex-choir member” or “a former minister of music.” Long before Hofeller died in Aug 2018, he was hailed as the white supremacist Lex Luthor (not to say that Lex isn’t a bigot already; I wouldn’t want to ruin his street cred). Called the “Master of the Modern Gerrymander,” Hofeller pioneered using race to redraw political maps to hand electoral advantages to Republicans.
A few months after the Michael Jordan of gerrymandering descended into the VIP section of Club Hades, a search of Hofeller’s computer files revealed him to be the architect of the Trump administration’s notorious census question that was so racist that even the right-leaning, conservative Supreme Court couldn’t let it slide.
But a recent examination of files retrieved from that hard drive also revealed Hoefeller’s previously unknown involvement in drawing political maps for states around the country, including one specific map using “sophisticated racial data” that may have caused the reversal of one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in American history.
The Intercept reports:
While Hofeller was known for drawing maps to give Republicans an advantage and to limit the impact of voters of color in North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and Virginia, the new documents reveal he also participated in the 2010 redistricting cycle in Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia.
And, in those three states, it appears Hofeller and other Republican mapmakers experimented with using race as the primary factor in drawing districts in these states — a tactic ruled unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which requires that people in similar circumstances be treated the same under the law. Among the trove of over 70,000 documents are draft maps with voter data broken down by race, spreadsheets that include the home addresses of members of Congress, travel plans, and legislation marked up by Hofeller himself.
These new documents shed additional light on the coordinated national strategy behind maps that locked in a GOP advantage in Congress and in state legislatures nationwide.
The Alabama Gerrymander
According to the U.S. Census, Alabama’s population is 26.5 percent African American, making it the sixth-blackest state in the country. Census data also reveals that Alabama’s black citizens register and vote more often than whites (In the 2016 election, 72.2 percent of black Alabamians were registered for the 2016 election, compared to 67.3 percent of whites. 60.2 percent of African Americans voted in Alabama’s 2016 elections compared to 55.6 percent of whites). Still, the state legislature is disproportionately white and Republican.
If political maps reflect the voting demographics, then how can this be?
The simple answer is gerrymandering.
The files obtained by the Intercept show that Hofeller was involved in drawing Alabama’s racial maps as early as 2010. But GOP lawmakers didn’t just allow Hofelleerto draw maps using census data to eliminate any hopes of black political power in Alabama, they also let him write the map guidelines and the legislation! This “mastermind” even broke down precincts street-by-street and county-by-county, showing his conservative collaborators estimates of Alabama’s future black population and how the politicians could finesse the school districts and polling places to keep non-whites powerless for years to come. Most of these controversial maps are in use to this day. In November, the Supreme Court will hear a case about one of these racially gerrymandered maps, where Hofeller “cracked” three black congressional districts by packing black voters into one district and distributed the other black voters among majority-white areas.
The fact that Hofeller secretly drew them in 2011 is important for two reasons: The first reason is a clear-cut example of how white supremacy fuels black poverty, which fuels crime, which fuels bad schools, which fuels more poverty, crime and bad schools.
In 2015, the city council in Birmingham, Ala., passed a plan to gradually raise its minimum wage. As soon as the law passed, the state legislature made it illegal for cities in the state to raise their minimum wage. To be clear, besides Birmingham, America’s third-blackest city, no other Alabama city had done this. Local business owners and out-of-state industries considering relocating to Alabama had not objected, mostly because the $10.10 wage was still below what many of these companies already paid their workers.
Noting that the city has two of the five most unequal school borders in America, Edbuild called Birmingham City Schools a “case study in gerrymandering,” adding:
Birmingham is surrounded by 13 other school districts—almost triple the national average—with borders that zigzag through towns and around communities. Six of its borders are among the 50 most segregating in the country.
These schools have no chance to improve without a financial tax base and yet Alabama’s racially gerrymandered, disproportionately white, Republican legislature filled with white men who repeatedly lecture on “small, localized government” and “education,” decided to obstruct the fight against poverty, crime and school underfunding in a city that is 72 percent black. While this may seem putrid to many, you gotta admit—when it comes to white supremacy—this plan is flawlessly executed.
But it’s not just Birmingham. Hofeller’s secret white supremacy files may have changed the course of voting rights as we know it.
On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision dismantled the most significant parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, specifically, preclearance—the provision that required historically discriminatory states to get approval from the Department of Justice before states could do any redistricting. The case was originally filed by a group of black voters after redistricting maps eliminated majority-black districts in Shelby County, Alabama.
Part of Shelby County’s legal strategy rested on their contention that there was no evidence of premeditated racism in Alabama. They agreed that the redrawn lines looked partisan, but argued that there was nothing that showed the maps were intentionally racist, even telling the Court that “[b]latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provisions, partly because the majority said there wasn’t enough recent and/or compelling evidence showing that Alabama was still racist.
“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
Yep. He basically said racism was dead and that there wasn’t enough evidence that Alabama was purposely using racism to redraw maps. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tried to explain that, while Alabama’s redistricting efforts might not be intentional, they still discriminated against black people, writing that “racial polarization means that racial minorities are at risk of being systematically outvoted and having their interests underrepresented in legislatures.”
Had I been sitting on the Supreme Court, my dissent would have simply read: “Motherfucker, it’s Alabama!” But, The Notorious RBG and the rest of the Court had no idea that Alabama’s political districts were drawn by a world-renowned white supremacist who made a living disenfranchising voters because of the color of their skin.
This all begs the obvious question: If the justices had known this, would they have kept the Voting Rights Act intact?
Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law thinks the new revelations may have made a difference. Clarke, who defended Shelby v. Holder in front of the Supreme Court, explained that that Hofeller’s treasure map to white supremacy might not have changed the outcome of that particular case, but the information “may very well have made it harder for Shelby County to have pursued this case in the first instance.”
“Newly uncovered information about Hofeller’s role leading campaigns to gerrymandered districts should and must be closely examined,” Clarke told The Root, adding: “Litigation should be brought where possible if the evidence shows that officials put in place maps that violate state laws or constitutions.”
According to Elie Mystal, the Harvard-trained lawyer (and 2019 Root 100 honoree) who left corporate America for a lucrative career in calling out white people, the Hofeller files, while damning, are just another example of the long history of white people white people-ing. Mystal’s list includes Chief Justice John Roberts, who Mystal called “a stone-cold racist” whose “whole career has been about taking away the right of black people to vote.”
“There was ample evidence, notwithstanding this new evidence, that racism was alive and well in the South when Roberts decided Shelby country,” Mystal told The Root. “Roberts didn’t care about any of it, declared racism over in the South, and moved on with his merry day. This evidence might have swayed Kennedy. Maybe. Not because Kennedy cared, but Kennedy liked to look like he cared, and if it had just been put in his face like this, maybe...maybe his vote flips and he writes a mewling ‘we should gut the VRA very soon, but not today.’”
So...that sounds like a “maybe.”
A Pristine Example of White Supremacy
While it is easy to connect the dots from Hofeller’s hard drive to the specific manifestations of white supremacy in Alabama, the efforts of one man may have affected black America in an immeasurable number of ways, including:
- It made it harder to vote: One of the major consequences of the Shelby v. Holder decision was its impact on black voter disenfranchisement. With the elimination of preclearance, states could now arbitrarily change their voting rules without checking with the DOJ. Literally minutes after the ruling, Texas’ Attorney General announced that a new voter ID law would immediately go into effect. A federal appeals court said North Carolina’s post-Shelby voter ID mandate “targeted African American voters with almost surgical precision.” Other preclearance states began purging millions of black voters from their voter rolls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
- It helped elect Donald Trump: Donald Trump won four of the five closest states in the 2016 presidential election. Four of those states changed their voting laws after Shelby v. Holder. Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin passed strict voter ID laws while Florida shortened voting hours. According to the Washington Post, if Clinton had won these three of these close states, she would have become president.
- It may have flipped the Senate: In 2016, Richard Burr barely won North Carolina’s Senate seat after Republicans enacted voter ID laws and illegally threw away voter registrations. Unbound by preclearance, Florida purged 10.6 percent of its voters from the rolls between 2016 and 2018 according to the Brennan Center, which paved the way for Republican Rick Scott’s 0.1 percent U.S. Senate seat victory. Even with Hofeller’s gerrymandering and Texas’ strict voting restrictions, Republican Ted Cruz bested Democrat Beto O’Rourke by less than 2 points in their 2018 Senate race. All three of these states were previously under preclearance requirements.
Republicans now hold a three-seat majority in the Senate
Plus, the shenanigans in Hofeller-gerrymandered, preclearance-free Florida and Georgia undoubtedly helped defeat Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who both lost the chance of becoming the Deep South’s first black governors by less than one percent each in the 2018 midterm elections.
“It’s not just a thousand racists pounding on a keyboard and coming up with Shakespeare,” explains Mystal, Executive Editor of Above The Law. “It didn’t just happen. This is our American version of it. And this evidence shows that there are truly evil people, operating behind the scenes, ‘putting in the work’ to make American apartheid a thing. They know white people are about to be a minority in this country, and they have a plan.”
“The Hofeller files are a reminder about the ugly ways in which race and partisanship continue to infect our democracy,” Clarke told The Root. “The 2020 redistricting cycle is one that will require vigilance on the part of communities so that we can expose and uncover the pernicious forces that may be infecting the process behind closed doors.”
“The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information.” - Henry A. Wallace
I do not know if America is a racist country.
Racism is a belief and if— as Ted Kennedy once said—“integrity is the lifeblood of democracy” and “deceit is a poison in its veins,” then America’s historical lack of integrity makes it impossible to know what this country believes. The man who declared that “all men are created equal” believed black people were mentally inferior “pests in society.” Conservatives who claim to be “pro-life” don’t mind extrajudicial police lynchings or the disproportionate racial application of the death penalty.
If a state legislature can quietly collude to keep black people from being represented in government, then integrity does not exist and everything is poison.
Racism is often physically violent but white supremacy is an odorless, tasteless venom. It is too busy improving itself to make the weekly Klan meeting. It refines its algorithms to benefit whiteness and revamp its laws to fit their needs. But let not your heart be troubled by this revelation because democracy is not at risk nor is America a racist country.
It may sound hyperbolic and slanderous, but the only phrase that can accurately describe this 243-year-old union is “white supremacy.”
That is America.
And, despite what you have been led to believe, this country is not getting better.
But it is always becoming more perfect.