How much progress toward the cause of racial justice is enough? On the same day that a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Capitol, the Supreme Court across the way was debating whether to uphold the Voting Rights Act. What would she have thought? The Act, first passed in 1965 and reauthorized by Congress 5 times, most recently in 2006 by an overwhelming vote in the House and a rare unanimous vote in the Senate is under constitutional challenge. At issue was Section 5 which requires federal supervision and oversight of all or portions of 16 states if they wish to change their voting laws. The law was originally passed to ensure that states could not make election policies that intimidated, disadvantaged, or otherwise gave short-shrift to minority voters. The juxtaposition of the Rosa Parks commemoration and the Court readying to strike down Section 5 of the Act was jarring, but the rhetoric of the conservatives Justices was even more unsettling.
I am guessing Rosa Parks would have been pretty pissed off to hear Justice Scalia refer to voting as a "racial entitlement" when she spent her life fighting for equal treatment. The oral argument questioning seemed to indicate that the five conservative justices are ready to strike down Section 5 of the Act. Scalia suggested that Members of Congress were afraid to vote against it out of fear of being called racist. h/t to Zach Cook, but apparently Scalia is so multi-talented that he can not only channel the wishes of the Founding Fathers as he applies his originalism, but he can also mind-read the intent of all the Members of Congress that they were cowed by PC-ness into voting for the renewal of the VRA. I can just see those 98 fraidy cat Senators, none of them with a healthy sense of self esteem, voting to renew the VRA out of fear.
More disturbing to Parks though might be the conservative suggestion like the one made by Bert Rein, attorney for Shelby, AL, that things in the South had "unmistakeably" changed and that there was now no need for the federal oversight. Similarly, Justice Kennedy said, "Section 5 was utterly necessary in 1965. No doubt about that...The Marshall Plan was very good, too, the Morrill Act, the Northwest Ordinance, but times change.” Not to be outdone, George Will this week wrote:
Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.
Had Mrs. Parks been alive today, she would have turned 100 last month. She would be the first to talk about the sea change in race relations in her lifetime and she would not have argued that there have been no improvement to race relations and racial equality. But compared to what? When the cause of racial equality started in the basement and we've now moved to the tenth floor, yes, it's progress, but a little perspective is in order. African-Americans still trail whites on a host of socio-economic measures including but not limted to: wages, diabetes and other illneess rates, abilities to get mortgages, educational attainment, and length of time to find a job when laid off. Asking Solicitor General Verrilli to render a judgement about whether the South is "more racist" than the North is a red herring. Rosa Parks, who was none to meek, would have loved Sotomayor and Kagan having none of it. In response to the Rein, Kagan pointed out that Alabama had no black statewide elected officials and Sotomayor indicated that the state's lengthy record of electoral discrimination landed it on the list of counties that required federal pre-clearance or approval to change its election rules.
Will is right about one thing. Like his "fly frozen in amber", it was so predictable that the conservatives cried about an infringement of states' rights and state sovereignty in calling for the overturn of Section 5 of the VRA. The states' rights defense as used by the south has an ignoble history as I noted before. How is it again, that states' rights includes the right to discriminate against minority citizens? How is it a violation of state sovereignty to ensure that an individual's most fundamental political right is protected? Rosa Parks would have likely reminded the conservatives that voting is not a racial entitlement and that democracy was never only about majority will; it is also about respect for minority rights.