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Our Views: New South shouldn't keep paying for old sins

Supreme Court ruling finally ends feds’ oversight of Ga. elections

POSTED: June 30, 2013 12:37 a.m.

In a busy week at the Supreme Court, justices narrowly voted to change the very nature of how elections are conducted in Georgia and 14 other states.

The court’s 5-4 decision suspended a portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires those states to get prior approval for redrawn districts and other election-related procedures from the Justice Department in Washington. That provision had been in place for nearly 50 years and was the proper remedy in its day to end years of voter discrimination from states that used Jim Crow laws to keep minority voters from the polls.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion concluded the data used to determine whether states are meeting equality standards are outdated and do not reflect racial progress over the years. He urged Congress to find a new way to quantify which states meet “current conditions,” suspending enforcement of that section in the meantime. With Congress unable to agree on what color the sky is, rest assured that won’t happen anytime soon.

Critics claim the ruling opens the possibility of a return to the discrimination seen prior to 1965. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said so in her dissenting opinion, expressing concern the provision was needed “to prevent a return to old ways.”

At that statement, we’re not sure whether to be insulted or shake our heads sadly. It leaves us asking Justice Ginsburg and others: Have you been to the South lately? Those who have would agree our state, as a whole, no longer reflects the ingrained racial bigotry seen in the 1960s and beforehand. For that reason, striking down the Voting Rights Act requirement was long overdue.

We make this case based on facts both verifiable and anecdotal.

First this: In the 2012 presidential election, African-Americans cast about a third of the votes in Georgia, slightly above their percentage of the population (31 percent). Four of Georgia’s 14 U.S. representatives are black. So clearly any effort to disenfranchise minority voters on a large scale is either ineffective or no longer in place.

Oh, and this: A black man was elected president. Twice. And he won in some of the states covered under the Act. Twice.

What other evidence is needed to convince Justice Ginsburg, an 80-year-old Brooklyn native, that most of the South no longer reflects the caricature of redneck, Tobacco Road backward thinking some who live in the past seem to think still prevails across the region?

In some instances, such memory is based on personal history. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a warrior of the Civil Rights struggles of the era, expressed the same worries. “Come and walk in my shoes,” he said in expressing the concern that our history of racial oppression could rise from the grave.

Lewis is an American hero, and it’s understandable he might feel that way. But a new generation of Georgians have learned to wear each other’s shoes, as Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. fought so hard to achieve. It is disappointing to hear he does not have more faith in his home state to continue the progress made over 50 years in ending institutional racism in education, government, the workplace and at the polls.

Georgia is not the state it was in 1965. The Georgia of that era elected unrepentant segregationists to state office. They now are dead and buried, replaced by more educated, enlightened and responsible leaders, despite ongoing and inevitable disagreements over party and policy.

Today’s Georgia has black elected officials at every level, including many in charge of managing local elections offices.

Why, for instance, should Atlanta face the same scrutiny over its voting practices today that it did in 1966? The capital city has for decades been governed by African-American leaders, and is today led by a dynamic mayor and the esteemed Rep. Lewis, now serving his 14th term in Congress. This has not been the Atlanta of Lester Maddox’s ax handles since the Braves first arrived, Coke came in 6-ounce bottles for a dime and barely a million people lived there.

This is not to say racial prejudice has joined polio in the dustbin of history. It remains in the hearts and minds of a few, and that can’t be ignored. When specific locales face charges of voter injustice, state and federal officials should respond, as Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to do.

That is the responsible policy for our modern-day reality: Attack the problem at its source by seeking evidence of wrongdoing, without assuming an entire state, or region, still flies the flag of division. Bigotry and discrimination don’t live in just one area; finding them anywhere they reside is a better use of our national effort than continuing to punish an entire section of the country for the sins of its fathers.

As we discussed last week, many feel the kind of voter ID requirements passed in recent years here and elsewhere represent a return to “poll taxes” and similar practices meant to discourage minority voters. Yet that is, at its core, a political argument and not a racial one. Even those who oppose the practice of photo ID and proof of citizenship mandates can’t point to evidence it discourages voting by any ethnic group.

In fact, many political analysts tell of a negative flip side to the Voting Rights Act. The desire to gerrymander the map to ensure minority representation has led to greater polarization of all districts based on race, economic status and, ultimately, political beliefs. Thus candidates of each party, running from districts more ideologically pure, tend to take on more extreme views, one of the causes blamed for our growing partisan divide in Washington.

Georgia and other states continue to pay for the scourge of slavery, the Civil War and the “separate but equal” decades of hateful bigotry that followed. We can’t change our past, but if allowed to do so, we can move past it and create equal opportunities for all without that repugnant history tied around our necks like a millstone. The South of Jim Crow may not yet be ancient history, but its memory continues to fade with each new generation of voters and leaders.

It’s past time our national government stopped assuming there is a fire even where there is no smoke, simply because a blaze was found roaring 50 years earlier. We’re thankful a thin majority of Supreme Court justices have accepted that truth.


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