Without dwelling unnecessarily on our book club’s review of The Color of Law it’s worth commenting on their bewilderment over the author’s allegation that Chief Justice John Roberts got his facts wrong when Roberts wrote that “if residential segregation is not a product of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications”.
That’s right! Blacks CHOOSE to live in segregated neighborhoods and send their children to predominantly Black schools and prefer the jobs that pay 60% of what white people earn. (sarcasm noted)
In other words, Roberts denied the existence of all of the housing laws that redlined neighborhoods and restricted Blacks from living in communities with whites through exclusionary zoning that was introduced in the early 1900s. Exclusionary housing prevented racial and ethnic minorities from moving into middle and upper-class neighborhoods. Reading (from the book) about decades of government policies and procedures that openly discriminated against Blacks was unsettling to our club members.
A little over a generation after the Civil War, a Mississippi legislator boasted that his state’s 1890 Jim Crow constitution - over 30 years after slaves were emancipated - had been designed solely to eliminate Blacks from politics. His scheme worked. Before the new constitution took effect, more than 190,000 Black people were registered to vote in Mississippi; within two years, only 8,600 remained on the rolls, and most of them would soon vanish as well.
The US Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision in Williams v. Mississippi, upheld the poll tax, disenfranchisement clauses, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause, all of which were features of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution and statutes. The justices argued that because the poll tax and literacy test applied to everyone, not just Blacks, the fact that 90 percent of Black voters disappeared from the electorate had nothing to do with “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
In an article by Carol Anderson in The Boston Globe she states, “The shredding of American citizens’ right to vote continued unabated for decades. Thus, by the time the United States prepared to go to war against the Nazis, only 3 percent of age-eligible Blacks were registered to vote in the South.”
Is it then surprising that a Congress filled with white men elected by white voters would continue to employ their white privilege/white supremacy to enact laws that limited Blacks’ access to housing, health care, education and employment? Moreover, it required seven decades of court case after court case where the justices would knock down one method of overt voter suppression only to uphold another and provide explicit guidance on the constitutional way to tweak the law to legally block Black Americans from voting.
That willful refusal to grapple with the racism inherent in silencing Black people’s political voice was more than apparent in the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which handcuffed the federal government’s ability to protect the right to vote.
That’s right! 2013! Seven years ago!
To make that happen, five justices had to overlook more than 700 attempts by states since 1982 to implement racially discriminatory voting laws. Instead of dealing with Shelby County’s willful disregard of federal law and the racism embedded in that contempt, Chief Justice John Roberts penned a rose-colored 5-4 decision about an America where virulent racism no longer existed and, therefore, no longer required the Voting Rights Act.
“In the years following the landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision, it’s become clear that the decision has handed the country an era of renewed white racial hegemony”. (VANN R. NEWKIRK II, JULY 10, 2018)
Perhaps it will take another mass movement, another “John Lewis” Voting Rights Act, and perhaps another constitutional amendment before the unequivocal right to vote is recognized in these United States.
Let’s hope the League of Women Voters can follow in the footsteps of those suffragists of 100 years ago to insure the voting rights of Black Americans.