Testing Shaw v. Reno

Do Majority-Minority Districts Cause Expressive Harms?
Stephen Ansolabehere & Nathaniel Persily

The Supreme Court's decision in Shaw v. Reno established an "analytically distinct" constitutional claim of racial gerrymandering for majority-minority districts drawn predominantly on the basis of race. The case was and continues to be controversial, because the precise nature of the injury caused by such districts has been a persistent source of debate. Shaw districts did not minimize a group's representation, but rather they communicated an "expressive harm" due to signals they sent to the electorate and representatives that the jurisdiction relied too much on race in the construction of a district. Such districts, the Court argued, communicated racial stereotypes that individuals belonging to the same racial group were politically interchangeable, despite their many social and economic differences. This paper tests the "Shaw hypothesis" with recent survey data. We find no patterns in racial attitudes based on the shape and racial composition of a congressional district. We do, however, find substantial and expected gaps among racial groups concerning attitudes toward the practice of majority-minority districting, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and job approval of the respondent's representative.

This article appears in the October 2015 Issue: Volume 90, Number 4