Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Obama, the Long Shadow of Racism, and the Right to Vote

At the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama, along with other luminaries, reflected on history and legacy of the civil rights movement. Mr. Obama's speech (full text here) raised once again the question about how race affects the right to vote and suggests consideration of these questions from a structural viewpoint.


The President's remarks praised the people, protests, and political achievements of civil rights legacy. Mr. Obama argued that America has transformed from the days of the Jim Crow apartheid. Yet he  recognized that "this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us." He discussed this long shadow by invoking current events in Ferguson, mass incarceration, social inequality, and continued poverty. In particular, Mr. Obama spent a significant amount of time on the right to vote:

And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge –- and that is the right to vote. Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote.  As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.

How can that be?  The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office.  One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.

As Ruthann Robson pointed out over at ConLaw Prof Blog, President Obama's comments reflect upon the impact that the decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder had in limiting the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act. I have  argued that in transforming the right to vote by crippling Section Five, we are directly transforming the legacy of civil rights.

More importantly, as someone who has written and blogged about the right to vote and modern-day voter suppression, I find interesting how Mr. Obama's located his call for action on voting rights in the history of Jim Crow voter suppression.  While not directly drawing the connection, he juxtaposes modern-day voter suppression with mass incarceration, poverty, and the "long shadow" of racism.  To do so is to lay side-by-side the ingredients of a more powerful narrative about the continuing history of American racism.  It is to suggest that structural inequality pervades the American political structure at its most basic levels. It is also to imply that we cannot see voting in isolation from police violence, economic oppression, or racial domination.

This narrative about the structural racism of democracy certainly was not the main (or intended) subject of the President's speech.  (Indeed, it directly disagrees with the account of racial progress the majority in Shelby County offered.)  The President sought more to commemorate and inspire than to critique and argue policy.  He stated no specifics about how Congress should address Shelby County, Ferguson, or the other issues. But the juxtaposition of race, democracy, mass incarceration, and poverty is to imply the need for a dialogue about structural racism that will ultimately spur legal reform.

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