If you want to stare into the ugly face of racial resentment, take a good look at Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His frank, if stunningly injudicious, remarks about a key portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) laid bare the bitterness that so many hyper-conservatives still harbor toward black progress.
This past week, during oral arguments about a challenge to the law — widely considered the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement — Scalia dismissed a critical part of the law as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Given that the VRA was passed to ensure that black Americans had the right to vote — after white segregationists had showed they were willing to beat, jail and kill activists to block the black ballot — it was a chilling remark.
I’m so glad Scalia, who has long since given up the charade of a circumspect judicial temperament, said exactly what was on his mind. It saves me the trouble of having to persuade you that many critics of the VRA are mossbacks who still resent the political transformation unleashed by the power of the black vote.
Other skeptics on the high court managed more subtle criticisms, largely built around the notion that much has changed in the decades since a young John Lewis was beaten bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 48 years ago this week. It’s a very seductive argument.
I know because I was very nearly seduced by it myself. In 2005, civil rights activists were gearing up to lobby Congress to once again renew the VRA, set to expire in 2006. As I considered their arguments, I looked around at a political landscape that Martin Luther King Jr. would not have recognized.
With black men and women serving in major political posts (appointed and elected), including as U.S. Secretary of State, I was about to concede to the forces who argued that the Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary. And I was prepared to disagree with the esteemed Lewis — who has now been a distinguished member of Congress for more than a quarter-century — on the point.
But the Georgia General Assembly dragged me back to the reality of the modern-day politics of racial exclusion. In 2005, its Republican members pushed through an odious piece of legislation requiring state-sanctioned photo IDs, such as a driver’s license, for voting. It became one of the first states to do so.