I was in Jamaica, working for the Industrial development Corporation, when President Johnson signed the US Voting Rights Act, but even so, I remember how big a deal it was. People everywhere recognized it as the cornerstone of electoral justice in the world’s leading democracy.
The right to vote was guaranteed under the American Constitution, but the sly ol’ boys in the South had figured out ways to get around existing laws. They set up one regulation after another to bar black citizens from the ballot box. As soon as one law was ruled unconstitutional, they passed something just as bad – or worse.
After widespread protests, including the bloody savagery at Selma, President Johnson pleaded with Congress to set up a mechanism for policing the southern states. The law he got included authority for the federal government to vet voting regulations in nine – mostly Southern – states that had a long history of racial discrimination.
This provision is being challenged by an Alabama city, and the Supreme Court’s conservative justices are making sounds indicating they will vote to uphold the challenge.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who is renowned for his bigotry, made the shocking observation that retaining the provision would be “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Even for Scalia (photo above, left), the statement was supremely outrageous. It brought gasps from the crowded courtroom and ignited fury in the civil rights community.
But Scalia was not alone in his hostility to the law. The three other “conservative” justices also looked askance at the provision giving the federal government the right to block state legislation. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing vote between conservatives and liberals, said the provision “singles out particular states and municipalities.” He seemed dubious about the need for such oversight. “Times change,” he declared.
Yet, while the provision is being criticized for singling out some states, its opponents also argue that voter discrimination is a thing of the past in America.
It’s a curious push-you-pull-you argument.
On one hand, the provision is under fire because it applies only to some states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) while voting rights abuses are rampant in others. On the other hand, the provision is being called unnecessary because discrimination is supposedly dead in America.
This kind of irony is the stuff of satire.
But it’s no laughing matter. As anyone who followed the most recent elections can tell you, several states passed outrageous legislation to suppress minority voting. Sandra and I stood in line for more than two hours to cast our ballots after Florida slashed early voting hours. Later, we found out we were among the lucky ones; some people in heavily Democratic areas waited for seven – even nine – hours.
Opponents of the voting’ rights act point to the election of America’s first black president as a sign that times have changed. But that, too, is bitterly ironic. President Obama’s election and re-election have poured gasoline on the fires of racial hatred. Never before has a president been subjected to such insults and threats.
Times have changed in America, as Justice Kennedy observed, but not necessarily for the better. At least not everywhere. The advances achieved by civil rights martyrs have engendered bitter resentment among civil rights opponents. And with each new step toward fulfilling the constitution’s promise of justice for all, fear and hostility have surged among opponents to the changes.
The bigots have become more intense in their bigotry.
President Johnson recognized when he signed the law that Democrats would “lose the South for a generation.” It’s been two generations, and the South remains solidly Republican.
That alone should tell the justices the fight for racial equality in America is far from over. They should bear in mind, too, that their decision will have repercussions not only in America but abroad. The world is watching.