Racial justice in America is disintegrating at warp speed. On matters of race, the ugly America of yesteryear — segregationist George Wallace’s America — is still with us. We must stanch its revival before it spreads and, like locusts, blankets our country with anti-black sentiments.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder striking down what has been called “the heart” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it painfully clear that being born white in America still confers certain inalienable rights that often elude African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to protect the right of African Americans to vote. The law was necessary because Southern states and a smattering of others intentionally suppressed the African American vote by requiring payment of poll taxes or passage of literacy tests.
Black voter suppression now is more covert and sophisticated, wreaking havoc on our democracy through onerous photo identification laws, redistricting, gerrymandering and requiring the voters who can least afford to do so to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed Congress’ intent in its 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act, stating that Congress did so because of “ … a phenomenon … called perpetuation of racial entitlement.” The esteemed justice referred to Section 5 of the act as an “embedded” form of “racial preferment.” And in an apparent criticism of judicial protection of “discrete and insular minorities” whose rights are not protected through the political process, Justice Scalia compared the voting rights of African Americans to child abusers, whom he said represent a minority similarly undeserving of special protection.
It would appear that in this view of what America should stand for, voting rights and representative government are inalienable rights for whites and an undeserved racial entitlement for African Americans. As a result, we have already seen Southern states enact discriminatory voter suppression measures threatening the right to vote in communities of color, eroding much of the civil rights progress made since passage of the act in 1965.
If she could, this July 4th, Lady Liberty would shed tears of grief.
If Justice Scalia’s words are not enough to convince you that a plague of racial injustice is imminent, then I would implore you to look at the George Zimmerman murder trial and defense attorney Don West’s dismissiveness and utter disdain for Rachel Jeantel, a key prosecution witness. In doing so, you will see the worrisome regression on racial attitudes that I speak of not only under the law, but in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.
My complaint is not so much with West’s cross-examination of Jeantel. As a lawyer, I am well aware that this is a murder trial and that the jury will decide whether Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. Although Zimmerman is an individual I would never agree to represent, I understand that West is obligated to defend his client zealously.
It is the absolute disdain and disrespect with which West, and the public, seemed to treat Jeantel that I find indicative of an alarming problem when it comes to race in America.
Jeantel is 19 years old. The ebony colored, full-figured teenager met Trayvon Martin in second grade. She was the last person to speak with Martin before George Zimmerman shot and killed him.
At times, West eyed the high school senior as if she were a creature he saw on an old episode of “The X-Files” or “Star Trek.” His mannerisms and facial expressions in questioning and “sort of” listening to her responses gave an appearance of mockery and condescension. He reeked of elitism when he asked her, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”
On day two of his cross-examination of her, Jeantel began referring to West as “Sir.” He showed delight at her supplication, remarking, “You seem a lot different today than you did yesterday. Are you feeling okay?” He seemed to delight in the realization that Jeantel could not read cursive, as if that undermined the credibility of her testimony.
Social media was just as ruthless and was a sad indicator that racial attitudes today are not much different than they were prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago.
Twitter contained the following posts:
In striking down “the heart” of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court reasoned that “things have changed dramatically” over the last 50 years. I would say the more things change, the more they stay the same.
What a July 4th.
Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy is the author of “Moving America Toward Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law 1963-2013”. Follow her on Twitter@michellebernard.