Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Fifty years later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act – one of the milestones of the civil rights movement – has been put on hold. The same could be said of MLK’s vision.
In Tuesday’s landmark ruling, the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the VRA that required states with histories of discriminatory voting practices to receive federal approval before implementing any changes to electoral procedures.
The rationale for the overturn, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion in the 5-4 vote, is that the act’s “extraordinary measures” are not “justified by current needs.” If Congress is to regulate state election laws, it must do so based on current evidence of discrimination rather than the historical repression of minority voters in Southern states.
On its face, a requirement to use the best available information hardly seems controversial; up-to-the-second data is valued in fields as varied as the stock market and fantasy baseball.
But in the case of voting rights, the notion of “data updates” serves as disingenuous intellectual cover for a decision that is as ideologically partisan as it is morally deficient. By putting the VRA in legislative timeout unless and until Congress takes action (which, given the current group’s record, could be quite some time), the Court’s conservative bloc unfettered states to implement any election laws they please.
If putting voting rights on pause gives you pause, it should. Texas, whose controversial voter ID program the Justice Department blocked last year on grounds it would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minorities, took just two hours to begin executing its preferred policy. Other states will soon follow.
From an empirical perspective, the problem with the Court’s approach is that creates a distinction without a difference: new information doesn’t mean new knowledge. In fact, rigorous research at UC-Davis and UConn finds that current geographical patterns of anti-black attitudes correspond almost perfectly with the VRA’s originally covered jurisdictions. The data Congress used to determine the act’s coverage may be decades old, but the ills it seeks to remedy are hardly obsolete.
Academics aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. Congress, in reauthorizing the act in 2006 (with a huge bipartisan majority, by the way) made an exhaustive review of the evidence and found that it “clearly shows the continued need for Federal oversight in jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” In the last 15 years alone, the Department of Justice found 86 separate attempts by states to enact voting law changes to be discriminatory – and thanks to VRA, blocked them. As of Tuesday, that protection is no longer available.
While it may be true that voter registration and turnout today are roughly similar between blacks and whites, America remains far from equal – at the polls, or otherwise. Not that any of this is particularly newsworthy to those who spend their lives as the faces behind the statistics.
The sad truth is, a half century after MLK’s call for equality, an unsettling share of the March on Washington’s objectives remain unachieved, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Schools and neighborhoods are still starkly segregated, with African Americans all-too-frequently on the wrong side of the fence. Black unemployment, at 13.5 percent, is twice that of whites. The minimum wage – which is still what many African Americans earn – is still not a livable one: a single parent of two working full-time, year-round at $7.25 an hour earns only three-quarters of the income necessary to lift her family out of poverty.
During the next few days, I’ll take you on a tour of inequality in twenty-first-century America. We’ll look at economic paralysis, implicit prejudice, and the collapse of the American dream. We’ll see how segregation steals from our pockets and takes from our minds, how discrimination undermines our ideals and tears at our hearts. Voter repression is far from the worst of it, but the awry attitude embodied by the Supreme Court’s decision isn’t a bad place to start.
Like Chief Justice Roberts, many Americans – or at least educated, white Americans – like to tell ourselves we live in a post-racial society. Those of us who came of age after the civil rights era can imagine a country without universal franchise about as well as we can imagine a country without universal cell phones.
Racism? That’s a thing of the past. We idolize black athletes, we elected a black president, we have black friends. We’re all one big happy family.
Or not. The gaps between black and white attainments are everywhere. Education gaps. Employment gaps. Health gaps. Wealth gaps. Political representation, housing, marriage, and incarceration gaps. By almost any measure, blacks and whites are just not equal.
But there’s more to the story. The decline of legal and overt discrimination in America has been accompanied by the rise of segregation of another sort: class. The last few decades have witnessed unprecedented separation of rich and poor – and in particular, a growing gulf between super-wealthy and everyone else.
Not only must African Americans overcome the continued effects of America’s ugly racial past, but now they must also battle the waving of the invisible hand, which currently is pushing everyone at the bottom further down.
At the heart of this prejudicial permutation is the dissipation of another dream: America’s. According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, more than 4 in 10 Americans who grow up in the bottom income quintile remain there as adults; 7 in 10 fail to reach the middle, and only 1 in 20 will reach the top.
The story is even worse for African Americans. According to Pew, more than half of blacks raised in the bottom income quintile remain there as adults. Two-thirds of blacks raised in the middle are actually downwardly mobile – meaning they have less comparative affluence than their parents.
These numbers look even worse when you consider that 65 percent of African Americans start life in the bottom quintile. Less than one in 10 black Americans are in the top two quintiles – compared with half of whites.
Were MLK alive today, would he still say these words?
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
In a society founded on liberty and universal rights, there is no place for differential treatment of entities created equal, no matter their pedigrees, peculiarities, or preferences. This much the Supreme Court acknowledges.
If only the same protections afforded states also applied as robustly to African Americans.