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February 27, 2013 12:23 PM How Long Must the South Be “Discriminated Against?”

By Ed Kilgore

Oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court over an Alabama county’s challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are underway now, and we’ll have some recaps and analysis later. But for an appetizer, I encourage you to read Alec MacGillis’ TNR article on the continuing battle for voting rights as seen from the perspective of South Carolina physician and accidental activist Brenda Williams. It’s all pretty fascinating, but I am most struck by Dr. Williams’ answer to the perennial question so many white southerners (and conservatives everywhere) ask in self-pitying complaints about the selective strutiny of southern voting rights practices as provided for in Section 5: How long must we suffer this indignity?

I asked Williams how long she thought Section 5 needed to remain in place. “For the next 50 years, probably,” she said. “Until this generation of people dies out. I hate to say it, but it’s true. This generation of people who have some affiliation with what the South used to be. The younger generation, I truly feel, will go beyond race.”

Brenda Williams was born the same year I was, in the same state of Georgia, and thus grew up under Jim Crow. She remembers it (and because she is African-American, suffered because of it), and so, too, do a lot of the movers and shakers in her angrily conservative adopted state. For all the whining about the bureaucratic red tape associated with Section 5, and all the “everybody’s doing it” excuses about voter suppression efforts north of the Mason-Dixon line, she’s asking a virtually unanswerable question of her own: is it really too much to ask that the South continue to walk the walk so long as millions upon millions of citizens personally remember a time when they were denied the most basic rights by their own governments, and their own neighbors? Is it undignified? Sure. But not remotely as undignified as Jim Crow. So let’s stop blaming the victim and do the right thing.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Josef K on February 27, 2013 12:42 PM:

    So let’s stop blaming the victim and do the right thing.

    Wouldn't that entail finishing what Sherman started, except this time follow Rome's example against Carthage? And if that's the case, what are we going to do with all those displaced Dixie whites? Ship them to Antarctica?

  • jpeckjr on February 27, 2013 12:43 PM:

    So what's the "right thing," Ed? Uphold Section 5 as it is now written? Overturn it completely? Or accept the argument that racist voting practices happen outside the South and rule that Section 5 applies nationwide?

  • Gorobei on February 27, 2013 12:52 PM:

    How long? How about at least as long as the period of time which they oppressively denied human rights to millions of people?

    So, get back to us on letting up on the South in about another 100 years, mkay?

  • Th on February 27, 2013 1:04 PM:

    "Or accept the argument that racist voting practices happen outside the South and rule that Section 5 applies nationwide?" Yes, this.

  • c u n d gulag on February 27, 2013 1:06 PM:

    Instead of the VRA's being in front of the SCOTUS right now, what should be being done instead, after the Conservative shenanigans of the past decade (plus), is to extend the VRA to ALL 50 states!

    AND to come up with standard registration requirements, and extend the time to vote to a month, both of which should make voting easier, and NOT more difficult.

    And THEN, we need to make voting mandatory, with fines for those people who are registered, but don't vote in that month, and an even stiffer fine for citizens who can't bother to register, let alone vote.

    Votes should reflect the 'will of the people,' and not the will imposed on people by state and local politicians.

  • martin on February 27, 2013 1:06 PM:

    How Long? Until the comment sections of local newspapers are not filled with racist crap and Confederate romanticism.

    How about the the VRA goes out of business the same time as the last chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy.

    And if they are doing it elsewhere (and they are) expand it to cover other violators.

  • CharlieM on February 27, 2013 1:10 PM:

    Right thing would be to apply it nationwide.
    And I say that as a older white southerner. Not because I have some sense of wounded regional pride ("It's not fair!"), but because having a mechanism in place to ensure no one's vote is compromised anywhere is the right thing to do.
    But until some Congress in the future amends it to make it a nationwide requirement, it needs to stay in place in the South.

  • exlibra on February 27, 2013 2:26 PM:

    One more cracker voting for expansion of the VRA to all 50 states. More democratic, one might say, and sorely needed in several places outside of the original swatch of the country.

  • Peter C on February 27, 2013 2:30 PM:

    WAIT! What's the big deal here? So states with a history of horrible state election law need to clear any new election laws with the Congress? Why is this a problem? Are they planning new laws which the nation as a whole would find unjust and repugnant?

    What, does Alabama need to implement a photo ID law that makes voting difficult for elderly minority citizens or purge its voter roles of people with the same last name as people convicted of selling crack? What good and sensible laws are being prevented by the voting rights act?

  • boatboy_srq on February 27, 2013 3:48 PM:

    One more vote (amongst many here) to expand application of the VRA. If Roberts is able to ask - seriously - whether southern states are measurably more racist than northern ones, and especially the "voter fraud" fetish the Reichwing has adopted, then it's a clear indicator that there is more work to be done to address inequality and not less.

    OTOH, with the current Congress, it's unlikely that any non-ex-Confederate state would ever be allowed to maintain its own redistricting without favoring the Reichwing, so keeping the VRA focused on the South would at least minimise that damage.

  • Rick B on February 27, 2013 3:52 PM:

    I was born in New Mexico (where it was repression of Mexicans, not blacks) and grew up in the South where I graduated from an all-white segregated high school. Echoing my family opposition to segregation I still did not realize the many, many racist attitudes I was being taught.

    I will never remove those racist attitudes I was taught. They will remain with me until I die. But I can watch for them and stop them before I act on them - when I recognized their source.

    Most of what we react to socially we do so instinctively and intuitively. Things happen to rapidly to do otherwise. Racism goes to training those instincts and intuitions, and will never be fully rooted out of my psyche. As a result I have to over control my behavior and my speech. Always. And it's not because my parents were bad, it's because the society I grew up in was a society of fear of slave revolt.

    It still is. The slave revolt of Haiti remains a major element of fear underlying the Southern society. It's a big part of the demand for uncontrolled guns and it is there whenever a white person sees a black teenage male they don't know and wonder what he is up to (selling drugs, casing house to steal from, looking for someone to mug, etc.)

    It used to be that southerners could depend on the police to protect them from the rampaging black teenagers, but the police over the last generation have started defending them. All that's left is to carry a gun like George Zimmerman.

    This sick fantasy is built into the tradition of America. There is something similar aimed at Asians and especially Mexicans, but I think I mostly escaped the brainwashing with those images. We humans are based on the traditions we learned as children and those traditions are either surface or repressed, but they never go away and they never stop impacting the decisions we make. Ask Freud about the power of the unconscious.

    The law rationalizes behavior and ignores the unconscious. Scalia is repressing the traditions that underlie this nation. That is sick and it is dangerous.

  • bsa on February 27, 2013 10:41 PM:

    I concur! Sad, but true.

    I asked Williams how long she thought Section 5 needed to remain in place. “For the next 50 years, probably,” she said. “Until this generation of people dies out. I hate to say it, but it’s true. This generation of people who have some affiliation with what the South used to be. The younger generation, I truly feel, will go beyond race.

    I say this everyday to people when I explain to them that the more things appear to have changed, actually nothing has and will not for that generation that still lives.