Fighting discrimination just got harder in the US

2013-06-26 12:27
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

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Chicago - The last week has been a decidedly bad one relating to racism in the USA, and how the country deals with it. Much like South Africa has now, the US put together national laws to deal with the institutionalised racism, and to kill off apartheid-like legislation that governed some states in a process that began in the 1960s.

The introduction of such laws, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act wasn't pretty. The Civil Rights Movement endured major bloodshed – the cost of human lives in fighting for basic human rights, such as being able to vote, sit in desegregated public transport, attend the same schools as white folks, live in whatever house they could afford to rent or buy, and not have their race taken into account when suitability for a job is assessed.
The entire movement did not eradicate racism, but confirmed the equal rights of black Americans into law – no longer could the old white South (and numerous other parts of the country) institute discriminatory voting practices such as poll taxes or literacy tests on black voters. The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, gave the federal government oversight into what states were doing regarding voting rights.
Unlike South Africa, a large chunk of US electoral law is done at the state level and not at the national level of government. The Voting Rights Act was instituted to ensure states couldn't pass discriminatory voting laws, and the places that were found to be racially discriminatory, were forced to clear changes to their voting laws with the Department of Justice before executing them, instead of having unfair practices hauled through court afterwards. This is important because it forbade governments from changing electoral laws before an election, and then having them roll around court for years before they could be rectified.
And on Tuesday the US Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act by limiting an enforcing clause within it.

Return to pre-1965 playbook

While there is a facile argument that the USA has changed since 1965, the Act was still enforced 31 times since the last time it was re-authorised in 2006. In fact Shelby County in Alabama, which successfully took the Voting Rights Act to the Supreme Court in this case, was pinged twice. Both times in towns in Shelby that redrew their districts so that they removed the only black-majority district, thereby maintaining all-white town councils.
As Ari Berman wrote in The Nation about the Supreme Court striking down the law, "The states of the Old Confederacy will return to the pre-1965 playbook, passing new voter suppression laws that can only be challenged, after years of lengthy litigation, in often-hostile Southern courts, with the burden of proof on those subject to discrimination, rather than those doing the discriminating."

One only needed to follow attempts by states to push through voting laws before the presidential election in November 2012 to see the possibilities of what could happen if state and county legislatures are permitted to ram through whatever laws they want: In states such as Florida, Illinois and Texas attempts were being made to reduce voting numbers by making it harder to register to vote. Some states are making it more difficult under the guise of non-constitutionally requiring photo IDs to vote. In many cases this is a reasonable request, but disproportionately affects the poor, particularly in states where getting an ID is a pain, requiring cash for transport to wherever the ID needs to be obtained, time off work, and the cost of the ID. It is easy to bury voter discrimination in such laws, which has been done before, and now the Department of Justice can no longer pre-clear such attempts.
In fact, within two hours of the Supreme Court verdict, Texas implemented a voter ID law that was banned by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act last year. That law takes effect on Thursday. In the swing state of North Carolina the same push is being made – in this instance the bill was held until the Supreme Court verdict – State Senator Tom Apodaca basically admitted to the Associated Press that they were waiting for federal scrutiny to be vanquished before proceeding.

The world is not colour blind

This removal of legislated protection for black Americans – who are a significant minority, making up only 13% of the US population – is the loss of a major weapon of abuse of the majority. Black Americans vote disproportionately for Democrats, and the booming growth in the Latino population in the USA, which also leans Democratic (although not quite to the same degree), particularly in southern states, means the Republicans in charge there are rather interested in self-preservation. Tuesday's court ruling has basically given these leaders incredible weaponry.
The constitutional rights for black folks in the USA to vote have not been affected at all. But the sideways manner in which successive state governments – not specifically limited to the South – have tried to corrode them means there was very real purpose for the law to stand. If anything, it should have seen expansion.
As much as we might like to pretend that this modern-day world is colour blind, it isn't. And some groups need protection from the majority. Today, this protection was killed off.
From 25 June 2013, it is much harder for those discriminated against in the USA to fight back.
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