Court's Voting Rights Act ruling should be a cause for celebration

Racism still exists, but it has been marginalized in the face of massive progress in access to the ballot box

July 14, 2013|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

OK, the subject is race, so I'm going to ask the "haters" from both ends of the spectrum to step outside the chat room.

You know who you are.

Some of you were upset when I asked Michael Steele to run on my gubernatorial ticket in 2002. A few of you told me so quietly — the way white racism usually plays out today. (Those who chose to engage on this issue received a none-too-polite response; few decided to press the matter.) You were also the ones with the disapproving stares at Kendel Ehrlich when she appeared in public with one of our black executive protection state troopers. Yes, even in this day and age.

On the other side are those who were equally upset by Michael's selection, but only because "he's not really black." Seems that unique combination of Republican, Catholic and pro-life was just too much for you to handle. You certainly made your opinions known: "token" and "Uncle Tom" are just a few of the racial indictments thrown Michael's way by prominent Democrats. One of you even declared "party trumps race" when it came to the quite inconvenient Mr. Steele. And then there was all that ugliness (from a previous incarnation of The Sun's editorial board) about how Michael "brought nothing to [my] ticket but the color of his skin." There were no political consequences for such racist statements, as usual. Nothing new here; I observed similar epithets directed to other prominent black Republicans (J.C. Watts, Condoleezza Rice, Walter Williams, Thomas Sewell, Clarence Thomas) during my years in public office.

No, this news item is directed to the large majority of Americans who do not view every single issue or event through a racial lens; those who are able to appreciate real progress when they see it. And the news is truly historic: The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that civil (voting) rights have improved such that nine states (mostly in the South) plus a number of counties elsewhere will no longer be required to receive permission from the federal government in order to effectuate changes in their voting laws. (FYI: Even Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg's dissenting opinion cites the "impressive" voting rights progress that has taken place in the impacted states.)

That such extraordinary federal intervention was required during much of the last 60 years is beyond question. Jim Crow era manipulation of the franchise (poll taxes, literary tests) was aimed at limiting minority voting rights. Those and other deprivations spurred President Lyndon Johnson to overcome steep opposition from southern Democrats (who had successfully bottled up civil rights legislation for many years) to pass the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Henceforth, the feds would ensure that everyone who was qualified to vote was allowed to vote.

Now fast forward to 2013, where voter participation among blacks is higher than among whites in Mississippi, the passage of voter photo identification in Georgia has increased minority turnout on election day (so much for the "photo identification statutes are racist" argument), and ultra progressive Massachusetts suffers the greatest voting disparity between black and white turnout.

Nevertheless, the court's decision to recognize that the racial climate in the South has undergone substantial change over the past 60 years has leading Democrats and the breathless left wing pundits on MSNBC (the Rev. Al Sharpton most especially) out there torching the Supreme Court and predicting the return of George Wallace and Bull Connor. (So much for the progressives' brief Obamacare-induced love affair with Chief Justice John Roberts, but I digress.)

Such over-reaction might gin up TV ratings and raise money for certain left wing groups, but it ignores the law of the land. Section 2 of the Act remains intact. That section bans discriminatory voting laws and practices. Does anyone truly believe today's Justice Department with its hundreds of career civil rights attorneys would turn a blind eye to any proposed change that negatively impacted the franchise?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), Rosa Parks (1955), Central High School in Little Rock (1957), "Freedom Ride" demonstrations (1961), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech (1963), and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, the Congressional Black Caucus counts 44 members (including the former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee), while legislative black caucus members within the states of the former Confederacy now total over 280. And federal and state redistricting favoring the creation of additional minority seats will only increase these numbers.

Slavery represents a permanent stain on the moral fabric of our country. Desegregation took far too long. We are not a perfect people, nor a perfect country. But we have come an awful long way since 1965. Our African-American president told me so…

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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