This August it will be exactly fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr stood and told over quarter of a million people: “I have a dream.” It was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, and it led to the Voting Rights Act just two years later which outlawed discriminatory voting practices in the historically racist south.
The Supreme Court in America just celebrated this anniversary by striking down one of the central provisions of that Act, at a time when American civil liberties are already being infringed-upon by an invasive surveillance state – and at a time, moreover, when the case of the shooting of a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin, has brought racial tensions in the South to the fore again too. It's not been a good year for the "land of the free".
In a devastating ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday voted as section four of the Act, which gives federal oversight to the voting procedures of certain southern states, unconstitutional. Changes in these procedures will now have to be challenged after the fact in court – an expensive and difficult process.
“During [the last 40 years], largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers,” said Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion to the court. “And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorised in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”
Racism in the US, needless to say, is not as quick to die as Roberts seems to think. Martin Luther King's speech was itself given on an other auspicious anniversary, that of the Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in the US. That historic document, signed 150 years ago, ended slavery, but began a century-long epoch of discrimination. King fought against it, and the Voting Rights Act was a significant victory, but the racism the Act attempts to counteract never really went away.
Roberts seems to genuinely believe that the fight against institutional racism has been won. Even if that were true, which it is not, the Act's real strength was its protection not just against overtly racist practices but against economic- and literacy-based voting tests that de facto discriminate against minorities or lower economic groups. These protections are still badly needed. Voter ID laws, which discriminate against minority groups less likely to have ID, have already been imposed by 30 states. Congressional districts are already gerrymandered to breaking-point to give disproportionate representation to wealthy, white Republicans and last year's election campaign was marred by dirty tactics like restricting early voting hours in counties with large black communities. If anything, the Voting Rights Act needed to be expanded, not gutted.
The Court's decision now puts the onus on Congress to justify federal oversight under the Act, which effectively rules it out – Congress is gridlocked and dominated by Republicans with an eye on the 2016 election, for whom this ruling is a godsend.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a former civil rights lawyer, wrote a damning dissenting opinion. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in [the Court's] utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”
“With that belief,” she concluded, “…history repeats itself.”
The decision has had immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation. Texas, one of the states now free to impose whatever voting restrictions it may choose, did not seem to even pause for breath. “With today’s decision the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Texas’ Republican attorney general Greg Abbott said today with relish, making the land of the free a little less free with every word.
Appalled, I mentioned the case to my room-mate here in New York this afternoon.
“Welcome to America,” she said.