Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blind Justice and the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court of the United States undermined years of progress toward the goal of racial justice when it struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Passed into law after a peaceful march from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, ended with protesters being gassed, clubbed and bullwhipped by rioting police troopers, the Voting Rights Act ended the shameful legacy of Jim Crow at the polls that had barred generations of African Americans from exercising their franchise across the South.
The majority of Justices appeared to have no sense of this history.  Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, has simplistically asserted that the “way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” as if the pretense of being colorblind—closing our eyes to the realities of racism—will make it go away.  Writing for the majority, Roberts reasoned that the Voting Rights statute, which required federal approval for changes in electoral procedures for nine states in old Dixie and for scores of jurisdictions in the North that had track records of voter suppression, no longer reflects current conditions.  Massachusetts today, Roberts said, has more problems with voter discrimination than Mississippi.

Really?  Mississippi like many Southern states been trying hard to pass restrictive new voting requirements that will disproportionately keep the poor and people of color from the polls.  A Mississippi initiative written last year by State Representative Joey Fillingane (R), for instance, would require citizens to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot, with the Catch-22 that in order to get a photo ID, a birth certificate is needed (and the only way to request a birth certificate in Mississippi is to present a photo ID.)   How different is this initiative from those pre-civil-rights-era “literacy tests” that required black voters to recite the U.S. Constitution from memory or guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap?  Up until last week,  Representative Fillingane’s initiative, which was approved by a majority of the state’s voters, could not be enacted without an okay from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Now, thanks to John Roberts and his cohorts, Mississippi is poised to act, just like Texas, which within hours of the Court’s ruling announced it would institute electoral re-districting that, up until that moment, had been blocked for discriminating against black and Latino voters.

This ruling is not just shameful.  It is naked power politics, intended to reduce turnout among constituencies that have traditionally voted Democratic, exercised by the one branch of government that is supposed to rise above partisan agendas.
The Goddess of Justice is traditionally portrayed wearing a blindfold, meaning that distinctions of race, ethnicity, and income mean nothing before the bar of truth.  But the purported “color-blindness” of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kenney is a cynical pose that suggests another meaning, as in Langston Hughes’ poem:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

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