Chief Justice John Roberts Made Jim Crow Great Again
It's easy to blame Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a less charming Boss Hogg-style villain, for the blatant voter suppression efforts in the state: electronic voting machines not working because someone "forgot" to send electrical cords for them, and the four-and-a-half hour lines in black districts as if the polling places were holding one-night-only concerts with the ghosts of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin. It may be a winning campaign strategy: "I'm not racist. I'm just incompetent. Hell, I'm probably both. Make me governor." But Kemp was only in position for such large-scale corruption because the Supreme Court in 2013 ruled to make Jim Crow great again and gutted the Voting Rights Act.
"Our country has changed," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. "While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."
Roberts was correct the the country had changed. Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 with a smaller percentage of the white vote than Michael Dukakis in 1988. Racial demographics had changed dramatically in almost a quarter century: White voters had gone from 85 percent of the electorate to 72, with a corresponding -- and concerning for Republicans -- increase in the electorate for blacks and Hispanics. After Mitt Romney's defeat, there were "autopsies" that argued the GOP would have to expand its tent and reach out to minorities. This was all superficial talk. Immigration reform flopped in the Senate the same month the Supreme Court gave Republicans an easier path to retaining power: cheating.
It didn't take long for states such as North Carolina to get to work "fixing" the system once the Roberts court had untied their racist hands. You wouldn't think a country with such appallingly low voter turnout (just under Estonia!) would also have a problem with rampant voter fraud, and you'd be right. It's a myth, a targeted effort to disenfranchise specific groups that's cloaked in a white sheet of supposed "election integrity."
A lot of white liberals who are attached to the "myth" of "good" conservatives explain away Roberts's decisions on voting rights and affirmative action as just racial naïveté. But Roberts is a right-wing true believer who has had the VRA in his sights since his early youth in DC. He clerked for the man he'd eventually replace -- William Rehnquist, a repugnant bigot, who once argued that "Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be re-affirmed." Rehnquist also was the devil on Barry Goldwater's shoulder advising him to oppose the Civil Rights Act.
It was a surprising 1980 decision that likely shaped Roberts's longterm views. The Supreme Court ruled that "racially discriminatory motivation is a necessary ingredient of a Fifteenth Amendment violation." Basically, you have to wear Klan robes and apply for the right permits to have your actions correctly described as "racist." Otherwise, "good" white folks can just whistle quietly to themselves and pretend they don't notice what you're doing.
However, in 1980, you arguably couldn't drastically alter election results, at least on a national level, by suppressing the minority vote. Mass incarceration was already playing its part. Why be greedy? You didn't really need to when 85 percent of voters were white. Mondale won a roughly similar percentage of the black and Hispanic vote in 1984 as Obama and all that got him was Minnesota's 13 electoral votes (barely).
Republicans had reached a sweet spot by 2013 where they had plausible deniability of racist intent in their suppression efforts. "We're not racist. We just play to win," they might argue. And what's "wrong" with partisan redistricting and even closing polling places in areas that don't vote for Republicans? Democrats would do the same if they were in charge and had brains in their heads. (They wouldn't.) Even when Republicans admit to targeting blacks specifically, they claim their motives aren't "racially discriminatory." It's just simple politics. If this doesn't seem to pass the laugh test, consider caucuses. They are arguably biased against the poor and minorities, as well as the disabled, but few liberals who promote them over primaries view them this way.
Roberts argued that legislation related to voting rights should speak to "current conditions," and that's just what happened. Pacific Standard columnist David M. Perry tweeted last week that "we are a center-left country with a massive vote suppression problem." But as last night's election returns repeatedly demonstrated, America is more accurately described as a white conservative, fascist-flirting nation that does everything in its power to keep a separate but hardly equal center-left minority nation in check. Brian Kemp, with all his guns and bluster, still had to cheat to beat (maybe) a black woman in the state where General Sherman had one hell of a bonfire. And he couldn't have done it without the Chief Justice's help.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."