One day, many years ago, I was working in my college bookstore when this guy walks in wearing a T-shirt. “White Power,” it said. I was chatting with a friend, Cathy Duncan, and what happened next was as smooth as if we had rehearsed it. All at once, she’s sitting on my lap or I’m sitting on hers – I can’t remember which – and that white girl gives this black guy a peck on the lips. In a loud voice she asks, “So, what time should I expect you home for dinner, honey?” Mr. White Power glares malice and retreats. Cathy and I fall over laughing. Which tells you something about how those of us who came of age in the first post civil rights generation tended to view racism. We saw it as something we could dissipate with a laugh, a tired old thing that had bedeviled our parents, yes, but which we were beyond. We thought racism was over.
I’ve spent much of my life since then being disabused of that naivete. Watching media empires built upon appeals to racial resentment, seeing the injustice system wield mass incarceration as a weapon against black men, bearing witness as the first African-American president produced his long-form birth certificate, all helped me understand just how silly we were to believe bigotry was done.
So a chill crawled up my spine last week as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could result in gutting the Voting Rights Act. That landmark 1965 legislation gave the ballot to black voters who had previously been denied it by discriminatory laws, economic threats, violence and by registrars who challenged them with nonsense questions like, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap.”
One of the act’s key provisions covers nine mostly Southern states and scores of municipalities with histories of such behavior. They must get federal approval before changing their voting procedures. The requirement may be stigmatizing; but it is hardly onerous.