The Make White People Behave Act

Yesterday’s blog post concerned Antonin Scalia’s grotesque reconstruction of the Voting Rights Act, which insures that everyone gets to vote, as an example of “racial entitlement.”

But when Justice Roberts took his turn questioning the Voting Rights Act yesterday, he asked:

Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?

I hope it’s not, because it’s a dumb thing to maintain.

I love beating up on the South as much as the next Yankee, but only a fool would ignore the persistent and entrenched racism that plagues the North (and the west, and the midwest). The history of institutional and political racism in the north is extremely well documented. Southerners are entirely right to complain when smug northerners overlook this.

But of course racism manifested differently in the two places. The North abolished slavery. The North didn’t establish formal legal segregation. And in the north, black people could vote after 1865.


The act they are debating is called the Voting Rights Act, not the “Make White People Less Racist Act.” The Act was never imagined to end racism, it was always imagined as a way to protect the right to vote, which was being suppressed because of racism. The right to vote itself is color blind. The South may or may not be “more racist.” But the South has a long long particular history of denying black people the right to vote, which is why the Act targets the South specifically. That’s where the right to vote was being systematically denied.

Robert’s language, like Scalia’s reveals how it isn’t really about voting rights, or is only secondarily about voting rights. What’s being fought out here is the recognition of the history and fact of racism. Roberts wrote briefs against the Voting Rights Act as a young attorney in the Reagan administration; it’s long been a target for him. This is the GOPs “southern strategy” writ large, the strategy of capitalizing on white resentment of civil rights and racial equality. If you can do what Roberts wants, which is insist that there is no difference between north and south in terms of who is “more racist”, then you can legitimate measures designed to restrict voting everywhere, because racism is over. Or rather, racism only appears wehen the rights of racial minorities are being protected.

The GOP has embraced the idea of voter suppression not just in the South, but in PA, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio among other states. True, it’s thinly disguised as measures to prevent nonexistent voter fraud. But the intent is clear, to find ways to suppress populations likely to vote Democratic, eg. populations more likely to include persons of color. So it’s reasonable to ask “why not apply the law to northern states considering voter suppression?” And I agree, why not? The Constitution clearly gives congress this authority. I’d like every eligible voter regardless of race creed or color or age of economic status to be able to vote with minimal inconvenience and trouble

I’m inclined to agree with Justice Roberts, the north is no “less racist” than the South, and to suggest that they should strike down the key parts of the Voting Rights Act. Then Congress could replace it with a new Act designed to establish federal oversight of every election, in every state, so that no one’s constitutional right to vote would be infringed. Sign me up.

But we all know that’s not going to happen. Federalizing the right to vote in that way would amount to recognition that we’ve always maintained a regime of perpetual racial entitlement for white people, which would be crushing blow to the self esteem of many white people and would serve, of course as the entering wedge of a notion of equal citizenship. And we can’t have that.

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