Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard a case challenging Section 5 of the Voters Rights Act of 1965. This particularly section requires areas of the country that have a history of voter discrimination to submit any proposed changes in their voting laws to the Department of Justice for approval. Most of the states and counties covered by Section 5 are Southern states, as such they harbor a deep-rooted resentment of federal intrusion.
Shelby County, Alabama brought the case to the Supreme Court claiming federal over-reach. But a Department of Justice Complaint, citing Section 5, against Shelby County in 2008 demonstrates that the Voting Rights Act is still necessary. Calera, a municipality in Shelby County, implemented a redistricting plan without DOJ approval. Eradicating a majority minority municipality, which resulted in the only black councilman losing his bid for re-election. The Department of Justice stepped in, redrew the lines, and Councilman Montgomery won the special election and regained his seat. Shelby County denies any wrong doing. Justice Sotomayor remarked,
“Some parts of the South have changed. Your county pretty much hasn’t. You may be the wrong party bringing this suit.”
Ok, what about other parts of the South? Today, the front page of the Washington Post had this story. An openly gay and black Mayoral candidate in Clarksdale, MS found dead under curious circumstance, which is being investigated as homicide. Marco McMillian’s death may not be politically or racially motivated. The current Mayor, Mayor Epsy, is black and has held his seat in Clarksdale since 1989. He is planning on stepping down and his brother his running to replace him.
While it is too soon to say whether McMillian’s death was motivated by hate, hate crimes are still a shockingly regular occurrence across the South. Take this story from Como, Mississippi in July 2012 where three white teenagers ran over a 61-year old black over with their pick-up truck “because he was black”. Or the beating of a 23-year old lesbian in Mobile, Alabama. Last Thanksgiving Day, Mallory Owens was severely beaten by her girlfriend’s brother. Federal crime statistics show that the South isn’t any more “hateful” than other parts of the country–in fact California is 1,000 times more hateful than Alabama. But that has less to do with the number of incidents and more to do with hate crime laws and how crimes are classified.
Wait a minute, how did we get from voting rights to hate crimes? I am not saying that there is a direct correlation between hate crimes committed by individuals and systematic attempts to disenfranchise minorities–but there is a similarity in the underlying logic. Many Southern states believe that the state can not punish people for their thoughts. A murder is a murder regardless of what someone was thinking when they committed it. This belief that motivation is irrelevant feeds Shelby County’s belief that it doesn’t need the Voter Rights Act. Opponents of Section 5, don’t want you to consider why voting laws are changed. They argue for redistricting, voter IDlaws, and to close voting booths early and want you to trust that their motivation is pure.
If we never consider the motivation behind these things then we can believe that race (or sexual orientation or SES) no longer matter. But motivation does matter and for this reason I hope the Supreme Court upholds Section 5. Not because the federal government should be in the business of policing the motivations of individuals or local governments–but because the federal government should ensure that prejudice beliefs have no place in public policy.