Yesterday, in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Back in the day, before racism was over, certain states and municipalities adopted various strategies which prevented blacks from voting. The Voting Rights Act sought to rectify that by first establishing a formula to determine if a given jurisdiction had discriminated against black voters (Section 4) and then by stipulating that any changes to voting laws in those jurisdictions had to be precleared by the federal government (Section 5). Yesterday the court ruled that the formula established by Section 4 was outdated and, therefore, unconstitutional. With no formula to determine which jurisdictions should fall under its purview, the federal government has lost the ability to regulate voting laws in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Now 9 states (mostly in the south) and many more counties in other states can change their voter laws as they see fit. Texas, one of the nine states freed from federal oversight, wasted little time (two hours actually) in advancing a voter ID law and a redistricting map that had previously been blocked for discriminating against blacks and Latinos.
The Voting Rights Act (along with the preceding Civil Rights Act of 1964) was the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement; a decade-long mass movement whereby black Americans finally achieved legal equality with whites and the most blatant forms of racial discrimination were outlawed. Barack Obama’s road to the white house was paved by the Voting Rights Act and, when he was first elected president in 2008, his elections was hailed by many as a signal that black Americans had finally reached “the promised land” that MLK had prophesied 40 years earlier.
The promised land where black unemployment is steady at 13.5% (more than double the white unemployment rate). The promised land where people of color make up only 30% of the population but comprise 60% of the prison population (1 in every 15 black men and 1 in every 36 Latino men are incarcerated compared to 1 in every 106 white men). The promised land where school closures disproportionately impact black students. The promised land where affirmative action is dead in some states and almost died nationally two days ago. And now, the promised land where states and counties can pass racist voter laws without federal oversight.
Obama’s not solely to blame for any of this but he does deserve some criticism.
Firstly, Obama’s role as a black exception means that neo-racists who coopt the colorblind language of the Civil Rights Movement, suggest that racism doesn’t exist, and then attack programs and policies which have helped combat racism have a powerful example to point to. “Racism is over. Look, we even have a black president. We don’t need this Voting Rights Act anymore.” In explaining their decisions to scrap Section 4, Justice Antonin Scalia described the Voting Rights Act as a form of “racial entitlement” and Chief Justice John Roberts explained that “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” This is backwards. It’s like building a bridge over a river because people were drowning while trying to cross it and then years later saying, “Things have changed. People haven’t drowned in this river for years. We don’t need this bridge anymore.” People aren’t drowning because of the bridge. If you get rid of it, people will start drowning again. Some racial progress has been achieved in the US because of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Getting rid of them will reopen the door to past abuses.
Secondly, while the Obama administration has already spoken out strongly against yesterday’s ruling, Obama has played a role in sculpting this Supreme Court. Before he was elected to the presidency, senator Obama served on the Senate Judiciary Committee which vetted Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts; both George W. Bush appointees. To be fair, senator Obama voted against both of them but some have suggested that as a Senate Judiciary Committee member, he could have done more to block them.
Finally, Obama owns some blame in the Supreme Court’s decision because of his role in pacifying the Left in general and the black Left in particular. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement were not won because those in power grew a conscious overnight and decided to grant blacks equal rights; they were won because those without power banded together and forced those in power to act in their interest. Lyndon Johnson didn’t sign the Voting Rights Act because he wanted to, he signed it because he had to; because a mass movement demanded and made it politically untenable for him not to. Historically, organizing and mass cooperation is one of the few ways that the marginalized have been able to exercise any power.
Obama was elected at a time when the Left was agitated. While it was nowhere near as active or organized as it was in the 1960s, 8 years of Bush had the people ready for some change. The Left in general and the black Left overwhelmingly supported him because they thought that he would represent their interests. People mobilized to support him. But he’s just one man. As he’s reminded us, Obama is the president of the United States, not of Black America. It shows. It’s not the black president that can protect the rights of black America. Only black Americans, working together on a large scale, can fight for and protect black America.