Unequal States Why the US Still Needs Race Protection Laws

The Supreme Court in Washington has ruled that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to combat the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, is no longer valid. They argue blatant racism is a thing of the past, but daily experience tells a different story.
A protest in front of the Supreme Court in Washington: This week's verdict doesn't reflect reality.

A protest in front of the Supreme Court in Washington: This week's verdict doesn't reflect reality.

Foto: WIN MCNAMEE/ AFP

The United States Supreme Court has spoken. The country's highest court has essentially ruled that racism is a thing of the past in America. Gone are the times when black people were hunted down and lynched, times when Congress had to provide African-Americans with legislative protection, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the greatest achievement of the US civil rights movement.

"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," the court wrote in its decision on Tuesday, overturning the key provision of the historical Voting Rights Act, which had been passed in 1965 to help ensure that African-Americans were given equal voting rights in states in the South. They reasoned that "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare," that "minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels," and that the line separating the racist South from the open-minded North had disappeared.

"Our nation has made great strides," Chief Justice John Roberts, born in Buffalo, New York, wrote in the majority decision.

But has it? Certainly. The situation today is nowhere near as bad as it was during the bloody 1950s and '60s. And that's been true for a long time. Of course, this became even more evident with Barack Obama's election as president in 2008, a development many heralded as the dawning of a "post-racial" era.

A Dose of Daily Racism

The truth, however, is that the United States is still grappling with the problem of racism, with discrimination and with the long-term consequences of past slavery in the country. Racism may be less "blatant," as the Supreme Court posits, but it remains latent -- and that's what makes laws like the Voting Rights Act so important.

Here are just a few examples of the kind of everyday racism experienced in America -- and there have been quite a few lately.

  • In Florida, the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, has just begun. His justification in the slaying: Martin had looked suspicious to him when he entered into his gated community. What that actually meant, though, is that a black person didn't belong there -- he couldn't have been up to anything but trouble. "These assholes, they always get away," Zimmerman reportedly told police.

  • And celebrity chef Paula Deen of Georgia, known for her heavy Southern cooking, recently outed herself as a subconscious racist. She admitted that the "n-word" had been part of her casual vernacular and is accused of having suggested plans for a "Gone with the Wind"-style wedding that would have included "a bunch of little niggers" as servers. "Deen has the kind of mind that can look back on America's Holocaust and see nothing but cotillions and hoop skirts," the online magazine Slate writes in an editorial.

  • Meanwhile, in New York, America's most progressive and diverse metropolis, a major dispute has erupted over racial profiling by police. The controversial "stop-and-frisk" program, which allows police to conduct pat downs on the street, is often a discriminatory practice. During the last 10 years, 88 percent of those who were stopped and frisked by police were black or Latino.

Should these examples be considered exceptions or simple anecdotes? By no means. Discrimination still remains deeply and systemically ingrained in US society. And that fact is revealed in the data.

  • African-Americans and Latinos comprise a disproportionate share of those in prison -- and on death row. Africans have a 1 in 15 chance of landing behind bars, whereas the chance of Caucasians going to jail are 1 in 106. Prison sentences for blacks are also usually harsher than those for whites -- even when similar crimes are committed, particularly when it comes to drug convictions.

  • African-Americans are also at an economic disadvantage, earning on average less than white people. Some 27 percent of African-Americans live under the poverty line, compared to just 10 percent of Caucasians.

Progress has come slowly, but the Voting Rights Act was a monumental leap forward. Nevertheless, it still didn't stop local politicians from using every trick in the book to curb the voting rights of African-Americans. They have been purged from registered voter lists, opening hours have been shortened at polling stations, the number of places where one could vote were sharply reduced in some voting districts, and there were mandatory voter ID requirements.

"Voting discrimination still exists," a "deeply disappointed" Obama warned on Tuesday. The Supreme Court's ruling could now give leeway for this type of chicanery. Republicans in Texas have already announced they will try to quickly push through a draconian mandatory ID law that would disproportionately impact the poor and minorities.

Protective laws remain indispensable in the United States, even if the principle of Affirmative Action is slowly starting to appear passé. Even in modern America, it will be some time before racism truly becomes a thing of the past.

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