"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 06, 2015

On the 50 Year History to Crush the Voting Rights Act

On this day of remembering the Voting Rights Act (VRA), I cannot recommend highly enough Jim Rutenberg's article in the New York Times Magazine, which tracks the 50 year history of conservative racists' efforts to undo the VRA. 

Central to the effort to crush VRA was John Roberts, Jr., whose contributions to eviscerating VRA began when he fast-tracked from Harvard Law School and became a clerk for William Rehnquist.  From Rutenberg:
The 1980 election may have put Reagan in office with an ominous nod to “states’ rights,” but in that same year black voter registration reached 60 percent, black politicians were slowly but steadily winning public office and efforts by ideologues like Helms to undermine the Voting Rights Act had not been able to halt the progress it protected.

But a new threat to the act was just about to arrive in Washington, in the confident person of John Roberts Jr., a superstar young conservative legal scholar who retained the bearing of the prep-school football captain he once was. A Midwesterner from the all-American town of Long Beach, Ind., he graduated early from Harvard summa cum laude and went on to Harvard Law, where he was editor of The Harvard Law Review, before landing a plum Supreme Court clerkship with Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee.

Rehnquist’s chambers were a haven for aspiring young conservatives, “the closest place to the center of an emerging conservative legal movement,” writes Ari Berman in his new book about the voting rights movement, “Give Us the Ballot.” For years, Rehnquist had openly opposed the major legislative achievements of the civil rights era. When the justice was a young Supreme Court clerk himself, he wrote a memo agreeing with Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine, which formed the bedrock legal justification for decades of segregation. (He later said the memo did not represent his true thinking.)


As a clerk, Roberts mostly drew dull cases to review — a disputed cattle transaction, the rightful tax status of a corporate hunting lodge — but later that year, when he took a prestigious new job as an assistant to Reagan’s attorney general, William French Smith, he would have much to say about the Mobile decision. Because the Voting Rights Act was coming up for renewal, a bipartisan group of senators and House members had taken the opportunity to work out a fix to undo the Supreme Court’s Mobile decision as part of the renewal package. The new rule would explicitly allow judges to find fault with any election law that resulted in minority disenfranchisement, no matter the intention. As a corrective to “proof of intent,” this “results test,” as it was known, would significantly strengthen the Voting Rights Act.

Many career civil rights attorneys at the Justice Department had no problem with the new rule. But Reagan’s political appointees, Roberts among them, had a new argument with profound implications: Justice should be colorblind. Roger Clegg, a lawyer who worked with Roberts during the Reagan years, described this new ethos in notably idealistic-sounding terms: “It’s a very bad thing for this country to have race-based decision making in any public transaction.”

It was the sort of argument that dismayed career civil rights attorneys. “In their zest for the colorblind society they professed to see, they didn’t recognize that the long couple hundred years of segregation and discrimination continued to have present-day effects,” one of those attorneys, J. Gerald Hebert, told me. “I would say they had a fundamental lack of understanding of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and what Congress could do under those amendments — I still don’t think Roberts understands it.”
Roberts, as we know, came to be appointed by W. to SCOTUS, where his racist efforts culminated in striking down key provisions of VRA, so that now only a shell remains without protections for assuring minority voting rights.

Later in the piece, Rutenberg exposes the unethical manipulation by W. in his campaign to pack the Commission on Civil Rights with right-wingers who pretend to live in color-blind society.  Enter, stage right, Abigail Thernstrom, who was working on No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003), which embraces the paternalist KIPP schools as the solution to brainwashing black and brown children to serve the corporate state.
...it was becoming clear that the Bush administration was picking up where the Reagan- and Bush-era Justice Department left off. One of Bush’s tactics was to pack the Commission on Civil Rights with a conservative majority. His administration was hardly the first to mold the commission to its ideology, but it did so in a new way: Avoiding rules barring a president from appointing more than four commissioners from his or her party, two Republican appointees re-registered as independents. The move cleared the way for Bush to add two new Republicans, effectively giving the commission a 6-2 split. Bush made Abigail Thernstrom, a respected conservative author who had been questioning the role of Section 5 since the 1980s, its vice chairwoman.
There is so much more in this fascinating article.

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