The Common Good

What SCOTUS Could Learn From Paula Deen

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act that was enacted in 1965 to root out racial discrimination in voting. The specific section of the Act that was stricken — Section 4 — set forth a formula for determining which jurisdictions need federal clearance before making even minor changes to voting procedures. The impact of striking Section 4 is that the most important part of the Act, Section 5, is now rendered useless. Section 5 provides that states, cities, and counties with a history of racial discrimination in voting must “pre-clear” changes to voting procedures with the Department of Justice or a special court in Washington, D.C. Without the formula in Section 4 to determine which states, cities, and counties the preclearance should apply to, the preemptive protection provided by Section 5 no longer exists, and any future challenges to changes in voting procedure must happen after such changes are already in effect.

The majority of the Court felt that racial minorities do not continue to face discriminatory voting practices, and that the preclearance requirement was based on 40-year-old facts that had no logical bearing on present day. Chief Justice Roberts, Jr., wrote:

“Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

The practical application of Tuesday's decision is that states will be able to enact potentially discriminatory laws that previously had been blocked. This was made immediately apparent in Texas, which announced after the ruling that voter identification laws would go into effect immediately.

The law had applied to nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — as well as several other counties and municipalities.

The numbers cited by the Court — that black-voter registration in Mississippi was 6.5 percent when the Act went into effect, and that today black-voter registration in Mississippi is nearly four percentage points higher than white-voter registration — are true. The question arises, however, of whether such gains are based on a true decline in discrimination, or if they were brought about by the Voting Rights Act.

The most likely answer is that both are true. That said, it seems the Court could easily glean from current events that discrimination is far from gone.

Paula Deen, a renown cooking show host, recently made the news for admitting to using the “N” word and desiring to stage a true Southern plantation-style wedding, complete with black men and women serving as slaves. Deen has since apologized. In her first official statement, Deen blamed her age (66) and heritage (she’s from Georgia) for having voiced such thoughts. This was not well received, and Deen quickly issued another, perhaps more authentic, apology.

Despite “taking back” her first statement regarding age and heritage, Deen raised an important point — one that the Supreme Court should perhaps have taken note of before rendering Tuesday’s decision: racism, while perhaps not “thriving,” still exists, even if only in the “it’s how I was raised, but I don’t mean anything by it” sort of way. Even this attitude, as well as the other, more nuanced forms of racism that are prevalent today, leads to a mindset of hierarchy, of racial superiority: it makes no difference if some of your friends are black, even if your in-laws are black, if you think not of “black people,” “people of color,” or “African-Americans,” but rather of “n*****s”.

Deen has apologized, and she should be forgiven. We can move on from the outcry over an older, white Southerner using epithets she claims to have grown up with. Deen does not make decisions for our country or for our voters. The Supreme Court does, and unfortunately, we cannot as easily “move on” from the decision it made on Tuesday. We are still very much in a time when those who are of age to be in power were likely exposed to, or on the cusp of, legalized segregation and racist way s — a time when kids like Treyvon Martin are shot, and the son of a congressman calls the president a “n***a.” So when Justice Roberts writes, “our country has changed,” perhaps he should have extended that thought to be “but not enough.”

Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. Her work can be found in Sojourners, Literary Mama, and Faith Village, among others. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and blogs at http://jamiecallowayhanauer.com. You can find her on Twitter @happyhanauers, and on Facebook.

Image: Paula Deen, kai hecker / Shutterstock.com

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