It’s no coincidence that in the next few weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a challenge to affirmative action in higher education and also a challenge to the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Historically speaking, such challenges are what’s to be expected when Black Americans prove they are more than fit for American citizenship.
For nearly half a century substantial numbers of Black students at and Black graduates of elite White colleges – such as Barack and Michelle Obama – have proven they match their White counterparts in intelligence, ambition, and determination to contribute to the nation. But, still, the anti-affirmative action propaganda is saturated with thinly-disguised assertions of Black inferiority.
And for nearly half a century, Blacks of voting age have shown an expert understanding of how to play the political game and a profound faith in it. They have not indulged in loony conspiracy theories about the presidents whose policies they oppose, nor supported politicians who spout extremist fantasies about the federal government.
Instead, they’ve become a bedrock of the Democratic Party coalition and are increasingly ratcheting up the rate at which they turn out to vote. But this commitment to the American political tradition has provoked conservatives to increasingly tawdry neo-Jim Crow schemes in the political arena and continual challenges in the courts in order to limit blacks’ access to the ballot box.
The part of the Act under challenge is its Section 5, which requires certain jurisdictions to get permission from the Justice Department or a special federal court before changing voting procedures. Congress re-authorized this “pre-clearance” provision along with the entire act in 2006 after extensive testimony showed many of the jurisdictions were still using such tactics as denying petitions for early voting, or reducing the hours for early voting, or moving polling stations to locations likely to reduce the Black turnout.
The challenges to both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act contend they discriminate against Whites. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia bluntly previewed his opinion during the Court’s oral arguments over the latter when he characterized the part of the Act under challenge as “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement” that victimizes Whites.
What both Supreme Court challenges – and Justice Scalia’s remark – in their negative way affirm is the fundamental importance of both the policy of affirmative action and the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.
They protect Black Americans’ right to compete.
Depriving Black Americans of that right was the major purpose of the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson. That ruling stamped the court’s imprimatur on the burgeoning laws and customs stripping Blacks – 90 percent of whom then lived in the South – in ways large and small of their status as American citizens. It directly concerned segregation on public transportation in New Orleans. However, its most powerful impact was to validate depriving Blacks of their access to education and the right to vote.
But there are two things about the Plessy decision even more important than realizing what it did.
One is understanding that the ruling came when American society was in turmoil from the wrenching demands of industrial capitalism and a floodtide of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe of White peoples whom most native-born White Americans considered a lower species of human being.
The second is understanding that Plessy’s reasoning was built on pretense – the pretense of the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Its main points were: That separation of the races was the “natural order” of human relations. That Blacks and Whites could prosper under it because Whites, who had used violence to prevent Blacks from voting and seize control of the Southern state governments, would provide Blacks an equitable share of the governmental resources they gave to Whites. And that it was only the rogue Southern Blacks and Black and White “outside agitators” who were unhappy with segregation.
Of course, this was nonsensical thinking. But Plessy took hold among Northern as well as Southern Whites because it was rooted in a vicious anti-Black bigotry – and a fear of competition from Blacks, who had in the decades since the Civil War shown how capable they were of contending for the resources of the society.
To return to the present, a combination of bigotry and pretense and fear of competition is what animates the challenges to both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Both challenges are rooted in the 19th– and 20th-centuries racist pathology that, as far as Blacks and Whites are concerned, the “rights” of American citizenship and the resources of American society are a zero-sum game: any exercise by Blacks of their rights as Americans is a threat to the rights – and the privileges which have masqueraded as rights – whites have always enjoyed.
Will the U.S. Supreme Court affirm once again how backward a notion that is?
Lee A. Daniels is a columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.