Sometimes one would think that the left-tilted media and the race-grievance industry is conspiring to divide America. Sometimes, one would be right, and such a time was the disgraceful and misleading reporting of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, followed by apocalyptic and fear-mongering cries of outrage from Democrats, whose characterization of both the decision and its meaning were not just wrong, but dishonest and irresponsible.
The decision did not “gut” the 1965 Voting Rights Act as several news sources stated, nor strike at the “heart” of it, as the New York Times, editorializing in its headline, told readers (quoting Bill and Hillary Clinton), nor did the Supreme Court “reset” the “voting rights fight,” as USA Today headlined the decision. There is no dispute, or “fight,” over whether minorities should have the right to vote (Really, really unethical headline, USA Today…) Nor did the ruling “turn back the clock,” as multiple critics claimed. The latter was an especially Orwellian description, given that what the decision really did was insist that a clock that had been stopped for 40 years finally be set to reflect the passage of time.
The majority opinion in the case made the hardly unreasonable argument that taking away a state’s right to govern itself based on the presumption that the state has a racist proclivity to disenfranchise minority voters is a significant breach of state sovereignty, and such an incursion ought to be based on something more accurate than 40 year-old data and incidents occurring even earlier. The Court told Congress that its map of such states subject to “pre-clearance,” including such hotbeds of discrimination as Alaska, Arizona, Florida and parts of New York and California, needed to be redrawn and updated by Congress, which had lazily reauthorized the old map as it had been for decacdes when the 1965 law was reauthorized in 2006. It did this despite such obvious changes as what was evident in Mississippi, where only 6.7% of blacks were registered to vote in 1965 (as compared to 70% of whites), and today the percentage of registered African-Americans exceeds the percentage of whites. In 1965, that segregationist and racist motives were rampant in the South was undeniable, and it is equally undeniable that the prevailing culture in those states has changed dramatically for the better. Yet partisans, civil rights entrepreneurs and race-baiters think that it we are obligated to pretend it is 1965 forever.
The news reporting of the decision was astonishingly misleading and politicized, even for the sadly diminished US media. As attorney Jonathan Adler noted on the Volokh Conspiracy, referring to an earlier decision, “What is it about civil rights cases that causes otherwise sensible reporters and commentators to lose their senses?” The media’s hysteria was nothing, however, compared to Democrats and the left’s columnists. “The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” wrote Rep. John Lewis. Irresponsible and dishonest. Nothing in the decision diminishes voting rights in any way. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, predictably, engaged in outright misrepresentation, saying, “This is a devastating blow to Americans, particularly African-Americans, who are now at the mercy of state governments. Given last year’s attempts by states to change voting rules, it is absurd to say that we do not need these protections.” “At the mercy of state governments, “ says Al, as if blacks don’t have exactly the same legal remedies available as I do. And those efforts to change voting rules were the dastardly attempts to require voters to prove who they were before voting—a requirement that is neither unreasonable nor presumptively biased.
You know that the most vociferous critics of the ruling have a weak case, because the attacks have been rooted in nostalgia and appeals to emotion. Even Justice Ginsburg’s dissent, read from the bench, seemed to argue that because a law was bravely fought for by activists and did its job well, it is blasphemy to acknowledge that it is now out of date. Post columnist Dana Milbank issued a jaw-dropping argument that the majority’s opinion was offensive because it arrived as the 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s “I have a dream” speech approached. So now the Supreme Court is supposed to decide the law of the land with regard to whether or not their decision aligns well with anniversaries, and is insensitive and biased if it does not. This nonsense is what qualifies for op-ed prominence in today’s Washington Post.
Read between the lines of the over-the-top accusations, and the real reason for the alarm is clear. Of course the map of states and regions requiring judicial “pre-clearance” for changes in voting regulations needs to be updated (and reduced); the problem is that a Congress so poisonously divided—and dominated by hyper-partisan combatants like Nancy Pelosi, who issued her own absurdly inaccurate condemnation of the ruling—appears incapable of agreeing on a fair map that would remove the Court’s objection to Section 5 of the Act as it is currently being enforced. That’s right: the Supreme Court is expected to tolerate an obviously outdated and unfair provision that robs states of their right to govern themselves because Congress is dysfunctional, and the President is incapable of leadership.
That is not the Court’s job. Neither is it the job of journalists and elected officials to try to divide the country by falsely telling African-Americans that racism is as widespread and deeply rooted at it was half a century ago, and only the looming authority of the Feds keeps the US from sliding back to the era of literacy tests and Jim Crow.