A wrong vote on voting rights

June 25, 2013 

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and four other conservative justices have declared King’s dream fulfilled.

King had urged the multitude assembled on the mall in 1963: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

On Tuesday, the court freed the states King named and other mostly Southern states and counties from special federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The justices announced, in effect, that racial bias no longer shapes voting laws in those states.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts said in a majority opinion divided along the court’s familiar conservative and liberal lines.

The United States clearly has changed since 1965, but it is hardly a place that fulfills King’s great hope that blacks “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that overt racism is now taboo. Popular TV chef Paula Deen just lost her job for using a racial slur. But subtle prejudice endures. And it is true that Jim Crow laws have been stripped away, but more subtle measures have arisen and spread. Racial bias is the force behind voter ID bills and efforts to reduce early voting and Sunday voting.

The majority struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that set the formula for requiring that states and some counties – including 40 counties in North Carolina – get federal approval before changing election laws. The court’s majority said the requirement places those covered under a stigma of discrimination unsupported by recent voting data. Moreover, they sided with critics of the law who contend that voter suppression aimed at blacks has faded. The law’s critics note that a black man has been elected president twice and that black turnout percentages exceeded white in recent presidential elections.

The majority opinion is in keeping with a conservative claim that the United States has entered a post-racial era. We now all regard one another as people, not as members of races. This is a fantasy, of course, as many blacks – an now Hispanics – can attest.

The nation’s racial divide is plain in the breakdown of the Republican and Democratic members of Congress and in North Carolina’s General Assembly. It is as obvious as the long lines experienced by voters in heavily minority sections of Florida in the 2012 election. It is as transparent as the gerrymandered voting districts drawn by North Carolina Republicans. It was documented in cases decided under the Racial Justice Act, a law repealed by the new Republican majority in North Carolina’s legislature.

Racial prejudice is different today from when Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared, also in 1963, “Segregation now, segregation forever.” Conservatives today are proud of their tolerance, but many still use race as a political marker. To defeat Democrats, they seek to reduce the impact of black and Hispanic voters. The effect is the same as earlier prejudice. It disenfranchises groups of people based on their race.

That is what King hoped to see end in American politics. But, no matter what the court has declared, political color blindness is still a dream. The Voting Rights Act did much to make that dream come true, but declaring it achieved prematurely means only that it is, as Langston Hughes said, a dream deferred.

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