Posted by Jay Livingston
I haven’t read most of the reactions to Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that eviscerates the Voting Rights Act. But I would guess that for pure offensiveness, adding insult to injury, it would be hard to top the WSJ op-ed by Abigail Thernstrom.
What Shelby was all about was the ability of Republican-controlled states to ensure Republican dominance by making it harder for poor and minority citizens, who lean to the Democratic party, to vote.* In case that wasn’t clear, immediately following the decision, six states reintroduced voter restrictions that VRA pre-clearance had previously not allowed. Texas moved ahead with redistricting designed to reduce the number of minority and Democratic districts.
Democrats and especially Black politicians and commentators were dismayed by the Court’s decision. But Thernstrom assures them that the ruling “will benefit black America.” Here’s how. In a state with sharp racial divisions, the only way a Black politician can get elected is to have a district where Blacks are in the majority. If a state divides those Black voters up among two or three other districts, they will be minority in all districts and thus have no office holders.
But such dilution of voting strength is a good thing, says Thernstrom
The black candidates who ran in such enclaves [i.e., Black-majority districts] never acquired the skills to venture into the world of competitive politics in majority-white settings . . . . In this sense, the law [that prevented that dilution] became a brake on minority political aspirations.”**Like Chief Justice Roberts and Steven Colbert, Thernstrom doesn’t see race. We are in the era of post-racial politics. Poll taxes and literacy tests – that’s all history. Even the impulses that gave rise to them have long since disappeared. “Times have changed,” says Thernstrom, “and whites now vote for black candidates at every level of government.” That’s right. In Alabama, Obama did get the votes of some White people. Unfortunately, neither of them would speak on the record. (I exaggerate. There were more than two. In fact, a whopping 16% of Whites in Alabama voted for Obama, which is more than in Mississippi, 11%.) **
The message of Thernstrom’s piece is patronizing in the extreme. Basically, she is saying, “Oh you ignorant Black people. You don’t know what’s good for you. The five Republicans on the Supreme Court (four White men plus the unfailingly loyal Justice Thomas) do know what’s good for you. That’s why they’re giving the White Republicans in the South free rein to rewrite their voting laws. You’ll be so much better off now. Trust me.”
As if that weren’t enough, she says that the decision to make the VRA nearly unenforceable “is a celebration of the Voting Rights Act.”
And the crowning insult:
With the court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the “covered” jurisdictions (mostly in the South) are free at last to exercise their constitutional prerogative to regulate their own elections.That “free at last” bit surely was no accident. Does anyone really wonder what the Republicans in Alabamai Georgia, etc. will do their with new-found freedom, or what effect that prerogative will have on minority representation? And does anyone really wonder which side of Shelby would have had the support of Rev. King?
* They legislators never come right out and say this. Well, hardly ever. There was that GOP leader in Pennsylvania, who crowed about “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.”
**I wonder how Thernstrom and the SCOTUS majority would react if the colors were reversed – if Whites were a minority, and Blacks were making the voting laws.
*** I do not have data on Whites voting for Black candidates in state and local elections in Alabama and the other states designated by the VRA. Thernstrom, needless to say, does not provide any data.