I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made public its ruling on the Shelby Co., Ala., challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The news appeared between a tweet about the Mississippi State Bulldogs at the College World Series and one about Russian President Putin washing his hands of Snowden: the Supreme Court had dismantled the Voting Rights Act.
A majority of the Justices took a scalpel and surgically removed the heart of the VRA. For those unfamiliar with the case, Shelby Co., Ala., challenged whether Congress could oversee localities with a history of racially-based voter discrimination — a role the federal government has filled for almost five decades — with the effect being a boon in minority voting. SCOTUS said no.
Granted, the Court said the VRA could survive if Congress comes up with a new methodology for determining whether localities should be held to heightened scrutiny. However, it can’t live in this political climate with its heart removed, with an onus on this US Congress to re-formulate how covered jurisdictions are chosen. Keep in mind that the VRA was fully reauthorized, by Republicans in Congress and signed by President Bush, in 2006 for another 25 years. The Court, however, will have none of that, and those now at the center of power within the Republican Party are celebrating.
In disagreeing with this decision I likely place myself at odds with many of my fellow Mississippians. But, let’s also acknowledge all of our fellow Mississippians who do agree with me.
During my undergrad years at Delta State University, I had a professor who would often remind us, “everything is relative, folks, everything is relative.” He wasn’t telling us that facts depended on a person’s perspective, but that our attitudes and interpretations of facts depended on where we stood within society and culture. And, frankly, were we willing to challenge our perspective and see the world from the shoes of others?
I have thought of his astute admonishment several times as the VRA debate has been taking place. My eyebrows went up upon reading Justice Antonin Scalia saying, about the Voting Rights Act, that, “whenever a society adopts racial entitlements it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
Really? The concept of “racial entitlements” being hung around the necks of fellow Americans who experienced decades of Jim Crow and poll taxes and poll tests and “separate but equal” is a perspective I don’t get. The same could be said of the GOP’s attempt to limit minority voting by nixing early voting dates in several states this last election cycle; but I suppose everything is relative.
The Voting Rights Act is the cornerstone of our laws that ordered society in a way that brought down the walls of institutional racial entitlement. These laws freed us all from living in such a society.
Some who oppose the VRA have referred to it as a “60’s era” law that was fine then, but is now obsolete; a Cold War artifact, I suppose.
However, laws that protect people and ensure that each American has basic rights, like voting, are not arcane. But, discrimination ought to be.
The Voting Rights Act covers Alaska, Arizona and parts of California as well as the Southern states. And, it works, both in its goals and in practicality. Recently, counties in New Hampshire were removed from falling under the VRA. The ability for a jurisdiction to be removed was alive and healthy before the Court’s decision.
The legal right of States to carry out their own elections is a valid argument, but it’s not the only one. Now, the Supreme Court has taken laws that had been working, growing our electorate, and making the ballot box a place of equality and has placed them squarely into the political sphere.
Let the partisan quagmire and lawsuits commence! Well played, SCOTUS.
And, we begin seeing voters lose their rights, as many believe will happen. After all, the rights of each and every citizen are at the heart of our endeavors in the public square. The more engagement, the more we work to include and inform and grow together, the better and stronger we will all be for it.
Sometimes and in some places, privilege and despair live side by side. Those of us who have been blessed too often fail to put ourselves in the shoes of those who struggle — those who at times live just across town.
Each March, I travel with the Faith and Politics Institute and Civil Rights legend, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, to Selma, Alabama. We march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and remember the first time Mr. Lewis did so, on Bloody Sunday in 1965. Today, our commemorations are full of celebration. In 1965, it was full of tear gas and baseball bats. It was a dark day for the South.
We have come so far. We, in Mississippi, elect more African Americans to office than any other state. We live and work together each day. We make it work. And, we are moving, I believe, to a colorblind society. I see signs of it whenever I have the opportunity to be home.
But, our rate of success is tied to our realization of our past and the present challenges still manifested around us.
And, don’t forget, the Voting Rights Act was forced upon the nation by Southerners, too. Southerners who sat at counters, who peaceably crossed bridges and who non-violently demanded their right to vote. They were fellow Southerners.
The Voting Rights Act has been serving us well. Removing its heart kills it.
» Burns Strider, a native of Grenada, Miss., is founder and principle of the DC-based consulting firm, Eleison, llc, founder and President of the American Values Network and a director of The Southern Project. He has served as Senior Advisor to both Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi as well as Policy Director for the U.S. House Democratic Caucus.