“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner
The Supreme Court isn’t being shy lately. After handing Californian—and by extension, national—gay marriage opponents a big slice of disappointment when they ruled against Proposition 8 in March, the justices followed up this month when they declared the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.
This was the last major institutional hurdle at the federal level to marriage equality, and despite the reactionary hysterics of social conservatives in some state houses (looking at you, North Carolina), it’s only a matter of time before gay marriage is accepted nationwide. Hooray for the gays. No seriously, I mean that.
Acceptance of gay marriage is important. It gives people in same-sex relationships the legal recognition necessary to navigate society as a couple. It communicates a certain cultural inclusion—normalcy, if you will. And it gives younger people—gay and straight—an image of a “gay lifestyle” far removed from the fevered imagination of Ralph Reed and the rest of the Moral Majority closet cases.
For gay kids, hopefully this means they will have an easier time feeling like they have a place in their society and culture, and that they can have a happy, boring-ass life, if that’s what they want. For straight kids, it means growing up with less prejudice and ignorance, which is always a good thing.
But in the midst of moving society forward on that front, the Roberts court reminded us who they work for when they took a mallet to the support columns of one of the major legislative achievements of the civil rights movement: the Voting Rights Act.
Officially, black people had the right to vote nationwide as of 1870, with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Obviously, that wasn’t the case in many places—namely the Jim Crow South—and it took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to put legal teeth to the requirements of voting equality.
Thanks to this law, the Department of Justice was given the authority to scrutinize the election procedures of states with a history of voter discrimination—allowing the feds to root out practices designed to keep with the letter of federal law but preserve white exclusivity at the ballot box, such as poll taxes and “literacy” tests.
The case was decided five to four—a reflection of the importance of control of the Supreme Court, however marginal—with the majority making the argument that the nation has changed, and Southern states no longer engaged in the practices the VRA was designed to combat, therefore making the federal authority granted by the act an unconstitutional overreach.
There is a certain validity to some of that argument. The country has changed, and the idea that our racial problems were confined to the South has always been a bit of mythmaking. In recent elections, states like Ohio and Pennsylvania became poster children for unfair voting circumstances (significantly longer waits at polling places in low-income districts, intentionally misleading information given to voters, etc.).
And in the South, things have changed, sort of. The old-school racists are dying. Those who haven’t already gone on to face the next life are wiling away their bitter remaining years in thrall to Fox News and the rest of the white resentment hustlers. In their place are new racists. Ones with friendly faces and pseudo-logical theories supporting their views. Call them the children of David Duke.
And they may be a minority, but their fellow church congregants, golf buddies, coworkers and relatives listen to what they say. And while the average white Southerner may not go full-on white supremacist, the claptrap arguments put forth by the new racists do allow them to feel secure in their prejudices, so when those people interview job applicants, judge crimes, teach classes, they bring those prejudices with them.
The new racists are able to influence society in ways the old kooks in sheets never could.
A few years ago in Shelby County, Alabama, an unprecedented number of black candidates were set to win elective office. In response, the white officials who controlled the levers of power literally canceled the election. Thanks to the VRA, the federal government was able to intervene and required the county to go through with the election. This happened in 2008.
The fact of the matter is that racial discrimination is still deeply woven into the fabric of this nation—in the South and beyond—and by gutting the VRA, the Supreme Court removed a major tool from the federal kit when it comes to enforcing the people’s right to be heard. An imperfect and incomplete tool, but a powerful one.
Ultimately though, this isn’t about race. This is just part and parcel of the direction the court has been taking under Chief Justice Roberts, a constant erosion of the structures of society which protect everyday citizens from the predatory powerful. The capitulation on gay marriage appears to be the price the conservative faction of the court is willing to pay for corporate rule.