Conservative legal foundations and the Republican governor of Georgia, in challenging key parts of the Voting Rights Act, filed briefs in the Supreme Court this month pointing to racial progress and a high black turnout in last fall's election. They said Obama's election heralds the emergence of a colorblind society in which special legal safeguards...
WASHINGTON — The election of Barack Obama as president has been hailed as a crowning achievement of America’s civil-rights movement, the triumph of a black candidate in a nation with a history of slavery and segregation.
But in a twist, Obama’s success has now emerged as a central argument from conservatives who say his victory proves that some of the most protective civil-rights laws can be erased.
Conservative legal foundations and the Republican governor of Georgia, in challenging key parts of the Voting Rights Act, filed briefs in the Supreme Court this month pointing to racial progress and a high black turnout in last fall’s election. They said Obama’s election heralds the emergence of a colorblind society in which special legal safeguards for minorities are no longer required.
“The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when (the Voting Rights Act) was first enacted in 1965,” argued Texas lawyer Gregory Coleman, whose client, a local utility board in Austin, is challenging parts of the law.
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“The question now is, at what point do we as a society wipe the slate clean and accept that we are equals with equal rights, equal treatment, and equal expectations, and special treatment shouldn’t be provided to anyone?” asked Shannon Goessling, director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation in Atlanta, which has fought affirmative action and similar programs.
The Supreme Court sounded a similar note last week in limiting the reach of the Voting Rights Act. The law’s goal is “to hasten the waning of racism in American politics … (not) to entrench racial differences,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
That decision, in a North Carolina case, said states and municipalities need not consider race when drawing voting districts, except in areas where blacks or Latinos form a majority.
The Texas case to be heard next month will decide whether certain states and localities, mostly in the South, must continue to obtain Justice Department approval before changing voting districts, polling locations or other election procedures.
By invoking Obama, conservatives, in effect, are asking the Supreme Court to issue more than a mere legal decree about the fate of one law, but also to weigh in on emotionally charged questions about American society: Does the election of a black president mean racism is no longer a factor in American politics? And are civil-rights laws outdated in the age of Obama?
Conservatives said they plan to apply the Obama argument in the court of public opinion, as well.
“We will say, ‘How do you account for the election of Barack Obama?’ ” said Ward Connerly, a leading anti-affirmative-action activist, foreshadowing his response to supporters of race-preference laws. “If we can’t get rid of these laws now with Obama, I don’t know what yardstick we’re going to use.”
Civil-rights advocates bristle at the idea that Obama’s victory signals it is time to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and other laws. Obama and his administration reject the conservatives’ arguments.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, vowed in Selma, Ala., last week to protect the voting-rights law, which he said was “under attack.” And White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said that even as Obama acknowledges “tremendous progress” since the law was enacted, “he does not presume that his election or those advancements have wiped out the need for laws that protect the voting rights of all Americans.”
And advocates for civil rights point to state-by-state voting data from 2008, presented to the Supreme Court, showing persistent racial polarization in the Deep South and elsewhere. In Alabama and Mississippi, for example, Obama won about only one-tenth of the white vote — less than his party’s white nominee in 2004, Sen. John Kerry.
“How can (conservatives) make this case, when the effete Massachusetts liberal … got more white votes in Mississippi — in much less negative economic circumstances — than a highly popular candidate who was as hot as can be?” asked David Bositis, an expert on racial voting at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in last week’s 5-4 ruling on voting districts, appeared to reject the symbolism of Obama’s victory. “Some commentators suggest that racially polarized voting is waning — as evidenced by, for example, the election of minority candidates where a majority of voters are white,” Kennedy wrote.
“Still,” he said, “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions.”