Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hard Times Ahead For American Blacks?

 Could the United States Supreme Court open the door for rolling back decades of progress for America's black minority? 

When a black man won the White House in 2008, many in the commentariat declared the United States a "post-racial" society, no longer hamstrung by old hatreds, freed at last from the embarrassments of segregation – finally and triumphantly color blind.

Conservatives have been telling themselves some version of this pretty lie ever since Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox. On 27 February, we'll hear it again when the supreme court takes up a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The case, Shelby County v Holder, centers on Section 5 of the VRA, which requires that nine states with histories of discrimination (Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Alaska and Arizona), and parts of seven more states must seek permission from the justice department to change election laws. The Alabama county argues that Section 5 is an unconstitutional infringement on "state sovereignty", and a relic from the bygone days of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Granted, citizens in the old Confederacy are no longer forced to say how many bubbles are in a bar of soap before they can cast a ballot. But the last national election provides plenty of examples of voter suppression. Florida (five counties of which are included in Section 5) enacted a largely inaccurate purge of its electoral rolls. The people whose right to vote was challenged were predominantly (the state says coincidentally) minorities.

The state's Republican leadership cut back the number of polling places and reduced early voting, including the Sunday before election day, when African American churches would traditionally organize trips to the polls. Many, like Desaline Victor, the 102-year-old President Obama featured in his state of the union address, had to wait in line for hours. More than 200,000 others were unable to vote.

Texas and South Carolina (entirely covered by Section 5) tried to institute absurdly restrictive voter ID laws in 2012, but the Department of Justice, citing the Voting Rights Act, shot them down. "Federal courts sided with DOJ, finding that the new rules would disproportionately affect black and Latino citizens.
Should the supreme court strike down Section 5, Texas and South Carolina (and any other state with a legislature worried about too many of the wrong sort of voters) can come right back and try again. Perhaps that's why two weeks ago, the Virginia legislature decided that bank statements, utility bills, paycheck stubs and Social Security cards, all of which were specifically approved as valid voter ID just last year, will no longer be allowed. Concealed weapons permits, however, are perfectly acceptable.

...Jim Crow isn't dead: he's just hired a good PR firm, got lawyered up, and learned to call voter suppression "fraud prevention". Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation, calls the Voting Rights Act "a bill stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp".

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