By Bonnie Erbe
In many ways our country is united, but in just as many ways the United States seems like two nations. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling overturning part of the Voting Rights Act exemplified our differences.
We are divided politically, that is for sure, with a predominance of liberals on the east and west coasts and in large cities. We're also divided racially and see things from very different perspectives, despite our attempts to make things otherwise.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority in throwing out one section of the Voting Rights Act. He was joined by the other conservative justices -- Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito -- and swing voter Anthony M. Kennedy. They agreed, as Roberts wrote, that "strong medicine" applied to Southern states guilty of routine and pronounced electoral fraud in the 1960s is no longer needed.
"At the same time," Roberts noted, "voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act's extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. As we put it a short time ago, 'the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.' "
In shorthand: Jim Crow is dead, today's South is not the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s South, and the laws that guarded against voter fraud must come down.
The court threw out the act's "preclearance provisions." In the 1960s, Congress made up a list of state and local governments that had discriminated against voters in the past and required them to get federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures. Those changes included anything from the seemingly small and benign to the overwhelming. Knowing that things had changed drastically since the '60s, Congress in 2006 voted to keep preclearance in place.
News junkies can cite relatively recent instances of what many would view as voter discrimination, whether in so-called "precleared" parts of the South or not. Americablog.com reported last November that, "at one Florida polling location, in a heavily black neighborhood, the number of people who voted early was suddenly 'revised' from 2,945 to 1,942."
A report on Salon.com last summer included the following: "Florida Gov. Rick Scott is currently facing inquiries from the Justice Department and pressure from civil rights groups over his purging of voter rolls in the state, an effort that critics say has disproportionately targeted minorities and other Democratic voters. One group suing the state claims up to 87 percent of the voters purged from the rolls so far have been people of color, though other estimates place that number far lower."
While even the most liberal supporters of the VRA do not expect Jim Crow to recapture the South following this week's ruling, there is already solid evidence that protections kept in place by the law will fall away. Scotusblog.com reported on the day of the ruling that "within hours of today's decision, Texas moved to implement redistricting plans and a voter identification measure that federal courts had blocked just last year, holding that they were discriminatory within the meaning of Section 5."
I'm most interested in how the nation's views of the court's action are animated by race. Most people of color (absent, of course, Justice Thomas) will perceive this ruling as too much, too soon. Some smaller percentage of whites will perceive it as past its due. We've come a long way since prejudice ruled the South, but I wonder whether we'll ever get to the point where race no longer determines one's views on racial prejudice.