The Voting Rights Act Is a Mess, but We Still Need It
LBJ and MLK, architects of the Voting RIghts Act. All photos via Wikipedia Commons
The Supreme Court ruled today that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which said that some (mostly Southern) states and communities in the US had to ask the federal government for permission to change their voting rules and procedures, was unconstitutional. The majority of the court held that while the South used to be hella racist back in the 60s, things are now way more chill, thanks in part to the VRA, so the law doesn't need to exist in its current form. Right-wingers celebrated this as a victory for federalsim (or whatever), while the MSNBC crowd mourned this as the destruction of one of the most important laws of the Civil Rights era—an NAACP official said, “Today will be remembered as a step backwards in the march towards equal rights."
Now, I don't think that every single person who opposes Section 4 is a racist. I know it’s not fun being called a racist. When I was in sixth grade, I was accused of being a Nazi because I was making a picture of B. J. Blazkowicz, the hero from Wolfenstein 3D, busting a cap in a Nazi’s ass. To portray this accurately, I had to draw the Nazi’s swastika armband, and according to some of my classmates, this made me a Nazi. My teachers, fortunately, didn’t take any of this seriously, because at 12 I looked like a rabbi in a Tasmanian devil T-shirt. The following week, another kid wore highwaters to school and that took the heat off me.
You know what’s worse than being accused of racism, though? Having racism directed at you, which is something that happens in the United States fairly frequently. There were 2,924 racially motivated hate crimes in 2011, the most recent year statistics are available for, and there was an actual lynching of an African American in Texas as recently as 1998.
More statistics: According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 84 percent of white Americans approved of interracial marriage. But, framed another way, 16 percent of whites disapprove of interracial marriage. You can slice off part of the population, like Mississippians. Another survey, this one from Public Policy Polling, found that 46 percent of Mississippi Republicans, unbelievably, think that whites shouldn't be allowed to marry blacks. That is some old-timey racism, of the sort that isn't that uncommon in Mississippi—which is the whole reason the VRA exists in the first place.
The 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, signed by some crazy leftist.
Granted, the law makes no sense if you take your eyes off this kind of blatant ignorance and racism and consider things in the abstract. The VRA forces nine states and some additional cities and counties to jump through special hoops because of stuff that happened 48 years ago. If you want to move a polling place in Alabama across the street because of a construction project, you have to ask the federal government if that's OK. The assumption from the start is that you’re acting in bad faith, your every act is motivated by racial bias, and that you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent.
The law is condescending and paternalistic. If I were an election official in Georgia, I would resent the extra limitations and bureaucracy. I would decry the added cost and the wasted time. I would point out that in the years and months leading up to the passage of the VRA, the KKK was essentially carrying out a terrorist campaign: bombing churches, killing children, and assassinating Civil Rights leaders. America has changed in many wonderful ways since then. We've gone from slavery to black president in only 143 years. Hallelujah!
But things have changed so much, people now feel free to assume that even though we're one generation removed from the Jim Crow South, racism is pretty much over. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called the VRA a symptom of “racial entitlement” without laughing. When the case was before the court, the conservative justices asked sanctimonious questions about whether Southerners are more racist than “citizens in the North,” in response to which there was much hemming and hawing. Who wants to sound prejudiced in a case about prejudice?
The uncomfortable answer is that the people living in Paula Deen’s America are, by the numbers, more racist than their cousins in the North. The states and areas covered by Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA represent 25 percent of the US population but 80 percent of the successful voter-discrimination suits.
The VRA really is unfair. It's a bit like those childproof plastic locks people put on their cupboards—it makes opening them a pain in the ass, and really, the four-year-old probably won't get into the cupboards, and if she does, she probably won't take out the electric mixer and manage to plug it in, turn it on, and nearly kill the dog. But years ago, her brother did exactly that when he was three, so the cupboards remain locked, as dumb as it seems.
This is still better than just taking the childproofing off all the cupboards, which is the scary path we are heading down with today’s ruling.
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