There is a wicked irony that as the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, the country’s highest court is edging closer to gutting one of the movement’s greatest victories. As Americans everywhere celebrate the marches, martyrs, and nonviolent courage of Civil Rights activists in Selma, Birmingham, Atlanta and elsewhere, the Supreme Court seems poised to rollback the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or at least, eviscerate key provisions that make it functional legislation. The very thing for which men and women braved snapping dogs, fire hoses, lynch mobs and murder might not exist by the time this country finishes its yearlong national commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a racist country that can whitewash its civil rights heroes with celebrations while, at the same time, uprooting one of its most important legacies. Much attention has been given to Justice Antonin Scalia’s incendiary comment framing the Voting Rights Act as legislation that perpetuates “racial entitlement.” His comment drew gasps from those listening in and even a response by Justice Sonia Sotomayor from the bench. Her insight bears repeating: Voting is not a racial entitlement.
Further, overturning or gutting the Voting Rights Act would actually create systemic entitlement — one that preferences and privileges whites and the wealthy, putting the country on a regressive path to the way things were 50 years ago.
But Scalia’s comment is a distraction. Putting his overt racism on display obfuscates the deeply problematic framing of the issue by Chief Justice John Roberts. Scalia is easily dismissed, and it allows Americans to reject an extreme example of racism and embrace a softer, but still menacing, racist stance toward this issue.
More troubling, though, it appears the country’s highest judge doesn’t understand racism or the purpose of the Voting Rights Act.
Either that, or he understands it perfectly, and that’s why he wants it gone. It wouldn’t be surprising if this was the case, given his history with racism and voting-rights legislation.
Roberts essentially argued that states not subjected to the Voting Rights Act had far worse African-American voter turnout in elections, citing the difference between Mississippi and Massachusetts, noting pointedly that black turnout exceeds white turnout in the former.
What Roberts fails to see is that this better represents a vindication of the Voting Rights Act, not proof that it is obsolete. Only in a racist country can the success of civil rights legislation be used to argue for it is pointlessness.