When learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school, it often felt as if we were discussing an era in the distant past where race relations were intolerable, but then Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks made everything better. In reality, of course, America didn’t suddenly become a place of true freedom and equality for minorities overnight, and there are still struggles with institutional racism to this day. That’s why in 2006 the Senate unanimously agreed to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. Unfortunately, it appears as if one of the most effective anti-discrimination measures in American history, will be ruled unconstitutional and nullified by the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
The controversial provision in question is Section 5 of the act which mandates that 16 jurisdictions with a long history of racially discriminatory voting practices must have their voting procedures, like the sudden moving of polling places, or the redrawing of electoral districts, pre-approved by the Justice Department or federal judges in Washington. Needless to say, Section 5 primarily applies to the South.
The Court’s swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, recently said that “although there’s no question Section 5 was utterly necessary in 1965, “times change”. On this issue, Kennedy is just as deluded as he was when he argued in Citizens United that there was no evidence corporate campaign contributions corrupt the policy-making process.
In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this week, Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis reminded everyone of the extensive review Congress conducted when debating the extension of the Voting Rights Act back in 2006. After 21 hearings, more than 90 witnesses, and over 15,000 pages of evidence, Congress came to a near unanimous conclusion:
While some change has occurred, the places with a legacy of long-standing, entrenched and state-sponsored voting discrimination still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country. While the 16 jurisdictions affected by Section 5 represent only 25 percent of the nation’s population, they still represent more than 80 percent of the lawsuits proving cases of voting discrimination.
When asked why the Voting Rights Act was overwhelmingly re-authorized in 2006, Justice Antonin Scalia added another infamous quote to an already long list of loathsomeness: “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes”. Because in his mind, minorities having the same freedom to vote as white Americans is an entitlement.
There is no doubt that if the court nullifies the Voting Rights Act, it will be more difficult for minorities in this country to vote. Places like Shelby County, Alabama (the plaintiff in this case), would have no reason to care about the Voting Rights Act if they were not planning on discriminating against minority voters. The same way law-abiding citizens have no reason to fear laws against theft, robbery, or murder. But this case is about so much more than that.
People died in the efforts to see the Voting Rights Act finally passed into law, and not just the heroes we read about. Countless anonymous faces who didn’t make it into the history books fought and died without ever finding out that they would eventually win, that America would one day elect an African-American President. And now that victory is about to be taken away from them by a man who derisively refers to their sacrifice for basic human rights, as a quest for entitlements.
Lets hope for the sake of all that this country is supposed to stand for that a last-minute change of heart prevents Scalia from getting his wish.