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Racial entitlements?

Shaaya Ellis | Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court heard the case Shelby County vs. Holder. The county argued before the high court that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when, in 2006, it reauthorized section five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years. The county adamantly claims that reauthorizing section five of the Voting Rights Act exceeded Congress’ authority under the 14th and 15th Amendment thus violating the 10 Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.

During the midst of the oral argument, United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia proclaimed, “Each time the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized in the past 50 years more and more senators supported it, even though the problem of racial discrimination at the polls has decreased over that time. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

Hearing Scalia declare that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone statute of the black American freedom struggle, was a racial entitlement left some of those in the courtroom including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Rachael Maddow, John Lewis and other civil right dignitaries livid. While at first Scalia’s comments might be seen as insensitive and incendiary, his comments point to a pervasive problem that both current civil rights crusaders and our political process have faced.

If we are truly to live up to the meaning of the black freedom struggle, which was to strive for equality for blacks in America, then we must extinguish outdated laws and the Supreme Court must strike down this provision of the Voting Rights Act.  Current civil rights crusaders such as Jackson and Sharpton would have people believe that they can wipe out the last vestiges of discrimination. Doing this has cost the country and is impossible without ushering in a police state.

Some might say that section five of the Voting Rights Act is necessary to prevent injustice in the political process, however, what was once a statute meant to alleviate the burden of overt discrimination has now become a mechanism that impedes the electoral process. Shelby County claims, “Immense progress since 1965 in rooting out official discrimination renders pre-clearance an unwarranted burden on those jurisdictions that must comply, unjustifiably subjecting some states to unequal treatment and violating their constitutional prerogative to regulate elections within their borders.”

Forcing a group of people to deal with an unnecessary burden when simply redrawing an electoral map causes injury and is grounds for terminating this provision. We either have all counties in the United States seek pre-clearance when redrawing their electoral maps or we have no counties in the United States seek pre-clearance when redrawing their electoral maps.  

The issue in Shelby County vs. Holder is whether Congress can have a set of rules and procedures for a select few whilst other counties, cities, municipalities and states go untouched by the Justice Department. Moreover, another issue is whether the government can justify intervening in state and local voting laws when politicians seek to adjust their voting maps. The Voting Rights Act and its several provisions was meant to prevent things like poll taxes and literacy tests from being enacted that have the effect of suppressing the vote on one segment of society.
If we are truly an equal nation where we judge one another on the content of character and not the color of one’s skin, then all should be treated as equals in front of the law. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “Our constitution is color-blind and no special treatment should be given to a selected group over another.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished Jim Crow segregation laws and other measures designed to impede or otherwise disenfranchise black voters. It has been renewed four times, most recently in 2006 when it passed Congress near-unanimously 98-0 in the senate and 390-33 in the house. The Supreme Court should do what Congress has not had the temerity to do and strike down this burdensome provision. Clarence Thomas once called section five of the Voting Rights Act “an antiquated provision that can no longer be justified as a constitutional way to enforce the 15th Amendment, the Reconstruction Amendment that protects all citizens from race-based voting discrimination.” The pervasive and overt racial discrimination prompting the creation of section five no longer exists, hence the law has outlived its usefulness.

Shaaya Ellis is a sophomore political science major with a classics minor. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.