Voting Rights Act is far from out of date
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America has been arguing with itself about what constitutes fairness since the earliest days of the republic. The Enlightenment fervor that buoyed the rebellion against Britain was still in the air when the Founding Fathers decided only white male landowners need be burdened with the responsibility of voting.
What could be fairer than a democracy-minded aristocracy calling the shots? Because we're an optimistic people, we're always willing to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Even the infamous three-fifths clause of the Constitution was an attempt to balance unreasonable expectations of freedom for enslaved blacks against the rights of slave-holding states that wanted comparable representation in Congress, even while defining blacks as property and denying them the franchise. It was just another way of looking on the bright side of a situation that made a lot of folks feel bad -- but not bad enough to do the right thing.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly stated many years later that blacks had no rights white men in power were obliged to respect, there was nothing unfair about reducing their significance to an absurd fraction.
Even after the Civil War, America continued to argue with itself about what constituted fairness. Other disgruntled groups, including women, were soon echoing black folks' complaints about the contradictions of a democracy that perfected the rhetoric of freedom at the glaring expense of reality.
But what could be fairer than Jim Crow, a system upheld by the Supreme Court and tolerated by most Americans for nearly a century? What, if anything, was inherently strange about limiting the vote to those blacks willing to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test? Shouldn't every democracy have standards?
If a black man was intellectually competent enough to recite the state constitution from memory standing on one foot while the sheriff paced a few feet away, no one was going to stop him from voting. Whether he made it home after exercising his "right" was a matter for the police -- not the federal government or the courts. The law was deemed just, because no one in America ever sat around scheming of ways to take away a fellow citizen's right to vote.
President Barack Obama unveiled a statue at the U.S. Capitol this week celebrating the legacy of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat on a Birmingham, Ala., bus to a white man as mandated by the laws of the state at the time. Her statue was unveiled the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by Alabama on the unconstitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
In 1955, Parks was excoriated by the overwhelming majority of white Alabamans who insisted the only racial problem in their state came from uppity protesters stirring up trouble. There was nothing unfair about how they treated black folks, they insisted. Thanks to the bravery of people like Parks, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law a decade later.
Section 5 of that invaluable legislation requires that all or parts of 16 states proven to have discriminated in the past against black voters obtain clearance from the federal government before making changes to voting locations or ballot procedures. The law came in handy in 2012 as the Obama Justice Department beat back cynical Republican efforts to impose onerous voter ID laws that would have disproportionately sidelined blacks, Hispanics and elderly people.
Signaling what could be a 5-4 majority to overthrow the law, Justice Antonin Scalia called the continued existence of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act an example of "racial entitlement." Mr. Scalia and several of his colleagues, including Justice Clarence Thomas, believe that the naked bias that originally prompted the need for government oversight no longer exists and that states like Alabama are being treated unfairly.
It is fitting that the statue of Parks was unveiled on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments about what constitutes fairness in America.
Despite overwhelming odds, Parks believed that fairness would triumph over the tyranny of the country's racial ideology. It took a few years, but she eventually won the argument.
Her protest helped change the electoral face of the nation forever.
Even if the Supreme Court sides with Alabama -- and I don't think it will -- we're never going back to the way it used to be. We've outgrown the kind of fairness they still yearn for in Alabama.
First Published March 1, 2013 12:00 am