Today is the last day of Black History Month. Yesterday, we were reminded about the importance of race and racial justice because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had its day in court. The people of Shelby County, Alabama feel as though the race issue is “over.”
Justice Antonin Scalia agrees with Shelby County, saying that Section 5 is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and that “whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires the federal government to give preclearance to any changes in the election laws of states like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and others because of their history of excluding people of color from the polling places with election laws such as the poll tax and the literacy tests.
What Scalia said is an idea held by many people because the conversation about the social construction of race has rarely happens.
I am personally astonished when people in positions of authority dismiss the importance of race in our society. The most common excuses used are “Well I have a _______(insert underprivileged group) friend” or “I don’t see race”. These excuses are uninformed stand-ins for “I am not racist.”
I am glad that we do not want to be labeled as racist people because we generally accept that racism is bad. That is progress. We want to reject the notion that, in our interpersonal relationships we hold prejudices based on the color of that persons skin. If we do not like someone, it is because of the content of his or her character.
This variation of Dr. King’s dream can be very misleading and deceiving. Racism and the construction of race is not just a reflection of a historical period—the construction of race points to a larger power dynamic that permeates our society to this day, a point that Justice Scalia and Shelby County lawyers obviously missed.
Vigilance and awareness is needed in order to notice institutionalized racism because it is not always overt—at least not anymore. For example, the stringent Voter I.D. laws passed last year in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and other states were touted as a way to stop people from committing voter fraud. It made it seem as though voter fraud is a common occurrence (UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud).
However, the lawmakers failed to realize that they were putting certain people at a disadvantage, particularly people of color, people in rural parts of the country and the elderly. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and it requires looking for documents which can often get lost. They cost a lot of money to replace and you have to go through a considerable amount of bureaucracy. These laws are not explicitly racist, but still put certain groups at a disadvantage.
Of course, voter identification laws are not the only example. There is the healthcare system. Where you live in this country often determines how well and how long you live. For example, if you are from an inner-city neighborhood you have higher chance of being lead poisoned, getting asthma and even getting cancer.
What about Hurricane Katrina? Katrina was not simply about the damage and destruction that was done or the levies that broke. It was also about who was left behind. Then Senator Obama said, “Katrina was the result of passive indifference”. Barbara Bush (President George W. Bush’s mother and the wife of President George H.W. Bush) called the treatment of the evacuees a success and said, “so many people in the area were underprivileged anyway so this is working well for them.” Let me remind you that people in the Superdome were left without food and water and living among dying or dead people in the middle of their destroyed city.
Have you ever thought about where your trash goes when you throw it out? There is no waste management site in the scenic Chestnut Hill area. The dump is in Roxbury, an inner city Boston neighborhood.
Despite all this, the attorney for Shelby Country said yesterday, "there is an old disease [racism] and that disease is cured.” How do we know that the disease is cured? Well, for one thing, we have a black president.
Racism is over because of our black president! For evidence to the contrary, just look at the birther movement. For some strange reason, some people could not believe that President Obama was actually born in this country. Therefore, they demanded that he release his “long-form” birth certificate in order to verify that he is in fact an American citizen.
The hope was that he was not a citizen so that they can get this anti-colonialism-Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist out of office. Birthers needed something to affirm their discomfort with the President’s “exotic” existence and his profoundly “un-American” journey to the presidency. Perhaps a birth certificate that stated that he was born in Kenya or Indonesia would be a sufficient explanation as to why his policies were so incredibly foreign to the American experience.
The irony of this is that President Obama is like the bi-racial Horatio Alger—he came from nothing and now he is something because he worked hard to overcome his obstacles. Last time I checked, the fantasy of meritocracy is still deeply embedded in the American culture.
What Antonin Scalia and the lawyer for Shelby Country do not understand is the institutional legacy of American racism. As a people, we do not like the idea of social inequity and we hope to see a progressive future for our country. So it makes no sense to dismiss race or racism as things that do not matter anymore when there is evidence that backs up the claim that race does matter.