Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in pursuit of weakening the Voting Rights Act.
The case in question, Shelby County v. Holder, comes against the provision outlined in Section 5, requiring southern states to be pre-cleared by the Supreme Court before any change to voting laws can be made.
The measure covers states including Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, among others, which have historically enacted tough, racially discriminatory barriers to voting.
Court Justice Antonin Scalia offered his disquieting perspective, essentially ruling the law outdated and unnecessary over 45 years after its passing.
In reference to the likelihood of Congress voting for the act, he inaccurately argued that a favorable vote only perpetuates the "phenomenon of racial entitlement" -- a comment that has caused great outrage for its Romney-esque, gift-like nature of speech. That is, the ability to vote is not some special right or a way for minority voters to "get over" on the majority, though the word "entitlement" suggests just that.
The remark was so off-base, it's truly disturbing to remember that it was not made by some Joe the Plumber off the street, your old, staunchly conservative Uncle Antonin at the family barbecue, but rather by a legislator who has a unique say in the life or death of the VRA.
Scalia went on in his backyard rant, switching focus to complain about the title of the bill, naming it as another reason why House Representatives would never vote against it.
"Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act," Scalia continued. "Who is going to vote against that in the future?"
He talks as if he has completely discarded the details of our American history, specifically, African-American history -- an uncomfortable revelation coming from a man of the highest court in the land.
He talks as if there wasn't a good enough reason for the enactment in the first place, back in 1965. But lest we forget, this was not some Criss Angel mind freak, something loud and bright appearing out of a shadowy nothing. A slew of measures including -- but not limited to -- poll taxes and literacy tests put forth to keep blacks from voting were potent fuel to the VRA fire.
Scalia's comments regarding the name seemed to harbor emotions of flippancy, as if he were accusing the law of perpetuating some melodrama, theatrically titled, "The Civil Rights Movement." Even the name of it is wonderful. I happen to believe that the preservation of the rights of the millions of minority voters by way of its enactment is what is truly wonderful.
He is right that the name of the law is quite grandiose, quite profound, but so was the plight of the people it sought to protect -- even more so, in fact. Equal protection under the law, regardless of race, creed or sex was quite the epic undertaking that saw many dark days, too many to count.
The name is simple, to the point, but it's what's behind a name; that's where the complexity lies, where the heart is. I'd like to think that the name alone is not what keeps legislators from voting against it, it's who they'd be voting against, who would likely suffer greatly from its repeal, mixed with the patriotic desire to preserve the integrity of our democracy.
Not only did Scalia's remarks suffer from long-term memory loss, they also seemed to lack any real grip on the realities of today. Just four months ago, the 2012 election had Republican Governors in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania fired up, attempting to rush through new voting laws that were inherently discriminatory against minority voters. The laws were so destructive, Democratic and Civil Rights groups pushed back, involving the Department of Justice in an effort to slam down as many new voting provisions as they could manage.
There were new attempts to require voter ID, which indisputably disenfranchised minority, poor and elderly voters. Poll hours of operation were cut short, loss of extended weekend hours despite opposition from the polling station employees themselves. Many registered voters were simply kicked off the list, in some cases, mere months before the election. The majority of these measures were being pushed so quickly and so close to Nov. 6 that great confusion was created among the public, making the act of voting an anxious, troubling ordeal and debatably not worth the headache.
Billboards were erected emphasizing that voter fraud equals jail time in impoverished neighborhoods particularly sensitive to crime, not to mention the letters in Spanish that went out to Hispanic voters in Arizona, stating that Election Day would take place on the 8th --two days after the actual date. The efforts were endless, so much so, MSNBC anchorwoman Melissa Harris Perry began a weekly segment entitled, "This Week in Voter Suppression," in the months directly leading up to the election. These efforts took place in a number of states that fall outside of Section Five's jurisdiction but I can only imagine how far other states would go if they were to be freed from the confines of this law.
It would seem that racism has taken on new, quieter forms, sometimes mistaken for something else by the untrained eye or the eye that really just couldn't care less. These revised ways may not be as crystal clear as a Jim Crow Law, but still manage the same effect. Regardless, these efforts are discriminatory, whether you want to classify it along color lines or class lines; take your pick. Voting rights were under siege barely one year ago, so for anyone who would consider striking down Section 5, it would be wonderful if you reconsidered. The terrible truth is that the minority vote is not safe in this country, and yes, even in 2013, still deserves protection.