It saddened me to see the immediate and negative reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act from liberal black, Jewish and other organizations. Instead of celebrating the end of Jim Crow, they seem to be saying ‘America is still a racist society.’ Instead of honoring the facts on the ground, they seem to be saying ‘the facts be damned; we want policies we like in place even when they are no longer needed.’ Instead of addressing current problems denying people access to the polls, such as the reported suppression of Black Republican turnout in Philadelphia by the Black Panthers, they want to continue to believe Americans of European descent want to deny basic rights to Americans of African descent.
Let’s review the facts.
The Voting Rights Act was passed to end Jim Crow––a system in place mainly in nine Southern states––which denied Blacks access to “white” institutions including the polls. A friend offered a pertinent example on his Facebook page. He related a conversation he’d had with his grandfather who when trying to register to vote had been told he had to recite the Declaration of Indpendence from memory. The grandson knew his grandfather could pass that test, but his grandfather didn’t try. Why not? Because they’d just ask me to recite some other document he replied.
Such literacy tests were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act and none have existed since. The act also placed a burden on certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination requiring them to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department in advance of any changes to their election laws to prevent similar measures, including gerrymandering (manipulating voting districts), from re-instating discrimination under a different guise.
It was that preclearance provision––not the rest of the Voting Rights Act––that was struck down. Those jurisdictions need no longer obtain prior approval because as Justice Roberts wrote “No one can fairly say that [they show] anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination . . . that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation.”
Fact: Jim Crow supressed black participation in the electoral process. Yet, in 2012, no state had a voter turnout under 50%. In fact, as Abigail Thernstrom points out in the Wall Street Journal (A Vindication of the Voting Rights Act, June 26, page A21), Mississippi––one of the targets of the original legislation––led the nation in turnout percentage in 2012! Clearly Blacks can and do vote everywhere in the country.
So if the facts no longer support the necessity of the preclearance requirement, why did so many groups scream bloody murder when the court struck it down? These groups apparently need the public to believe that white racism and discrimination against Blacks continue to dominate American culture. It is the basis for their ability to raise money, hire staff and engage in lobbying and similar activites. They must now mount a campaign which obfuscates the facts on the ground and denies real progress. In particular, they must convince whites that they have not yet paid the price for slavery and Jim Crow.
In order for people to believe that 50 years of change has only been superficial and that America remains under the thrall of white racism, those who protest the court’s decision are undermining the rationale for preclearance provision of Voting Rights Act in the first place. If it hasn’t worked, why continue it in place? Either you believe society cannot change, in which case why fool yourself by trying, or you believe that it can, in which case why not celebrate progress? Those who are angry about the decision are telling us that government intervention has no efficacy. Then why seek it?
As one who participated in the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s and 1970s, I’m proud of what we accomplished. We not only changed laws, but we changed people’s minds. America is a much different country than it was 50 years ago. I’m sad the people who find that to be a problem are the ones who claim to be in favor of equal justice. I can only hope that the public sees through their false claims and rejects their leadership on this issue.