Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Voting Rights Act is a Bulwark Against Tyranny

By Dale Bowling

A few days ago, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Hall of Statuary in the Capitol.

At nine feet, this bronze sculpture is bigger than life which is only fitting for such a towering figure in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was arrested, she received
death threats, she opened herself up to public ridicule and anger. It took a lot of guts to do what she did, but the fight was right and she fought. America is proud of what she achieved.

Ironically a mere stone's throw from the Capitol, one of the signature achievements of the Civil Rights Movement is being undone. The Supreme Court is debating the constitutionality of parts of the Voting Rights Act which has protected the rights of minority voters for a half century. 

A trip down collective memory lane might yield useful information here. As you all remember in the 50s and 60s, we had Apartheid right here in America.  In the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, state and local governments conspired to prevent whole groups of people from exercising their constitutional rights, from using the same public facilities as the majority, from benefiting from the prosperity that America had built.

This tyranny went by a lot names- Jim Crow, Segregation, Separate But Equal. It's a shameful episode in American history but frankly, one from which we have so much distance that it has become foreign to us.

We exalt the Civil Rights Movement. The Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings have rightly joined the pantheon of American heroes, but this foreignness, this exaltation renders us very complacent about what they did. We feel like that war is over and we can bury the fallen, put up monuments and move on.

The details of the case before the Supreme Court: Shelby County, Alabama is suing the federal government over certain provisions in the VRA. The source of contention is that places which had a historic record of voter discrimination were barred from changing their electoral laws without permission from the Federal Government. And it's not just the South that is affected by this. Some counties in California, Alaska, Michigan and other places outside the South also fall under the VRA.

Shelby County argues that Jim Crow was a long time ago, things have changed, they've made progress. This is not your father's Shelby Co. They go on that really the provision is unconstitutional any way because it gives less rights to places like Shelby Co., AL than it does other places.

And several members of the U.S. Supreme Court agree. Chief Justice Roberts asked if the law was saying that some parts of the country are more permanently racist than others. Justice Scalia says this represents "a perpetual racial entitlement". I'm not sure what this means other than African-Americans will feel permanently entitled to exercise their constitutional rights without fear that their local government is going to stop them and to me that seems like a good thing.

Admittedly, the Supreme Court can only answer the constitutional and legal questions surrounding the Voting Rights Act. They can't speak to either the moral or practical implications of the VRA.

Have we as a society so solved the problem of voter suppression that we can afford to dismantle the Voting Rights Act? I seem to remember lots of shenanigans surrounding voter suppression as recently as November. Dismantling protections for minority voters are only going to make suppressing their votes easier.

I've heard the Voting Rights Act called a monument or a testament of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is more than that. It's a bulwark against the Tyranny of the Majority. We need more of those, not fewer.

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