Selma and Suffrage

Today, probably as you are first reading this, Vice President Biden and his wife will join with thousands of other people to commemorate the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma. Interestingly, this years event will take place on the same date as the commemoration of the 1913 women’s suffrage march in Washington. (That second link has a really great collections of pictures from the 1913 march, by the way. Definitely worth a look.)

They are important events to be sure, providing us with a reminder of an era when we weren’t doing nearly as well as we could in terms of equality and freedom, in addition to the chance to remember and pay tribute to the people who risked much – in some cases, all – to bring about needed changes and push the country toward true equality. They also give us the opportunity to celebrate precisely how far we have come and appreciate the achievements which have been realized in these areas.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to be on board with the idea that we’ve made great progress. George Will explains.

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations…

The question concerning which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday was whether Section 5 of the act is still constitutional, given the disappearance of the conditions that once made it acceptable as a temporary and emergency truncation of states’ sovereignty under federalism. In 2008, two years after the fourth renewal of the act, Barack Obama won a higher percentage of the white vote than did Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Today Mississippi has more black elected officials — not more per capita, more — than any other state. Yet defenders of the continuing necessity of Section 5 merely shrug about the fact that race is no longer a barrier to either the nation’s highest office or to state and local offices in what once was the state most emblematic of resistance to racial equality.

I don’t think George Will – or any sane person for that matter – is claiming that America is perfect, that racism, sexism and bias of every kind are extinct or that there won’t always be room for improvement. We are a nation comprised of human beings, each with our own failings and shortcomings. But denying that the playing field has been leveled – particularly in terms of access to remedies through the courts when inequity is discovered – is also denying reality. But even the suggestion that this 48 year old act deserves a fresh look with 21st century eyes brings out the hoards of usual suspects waving the race card like a blood drenched flag.

Any piece of legislation which treats one subset of states, districts or people differently than another is constitutionally problematic on its face. And even if we accept, as Will does, that it was a “necessary but temporary solution,” history has also taught us that temporary takes on all sorts of new meanings when applied to the federal government. While there have been some notable exceptions, such as the Marshall Plan, for the most part, when Washington seizes some new measure of control over the actions of the citizens, taking it away from them generally requires holding a metaphorical gun to their heads.

Further, it is ironic that this entire discussion centers on the concept of prejudice while ignoring entirely the other side of the coin. There are only a few “acceptable” forms of prejudice left in this country, and one of them is to make fun of, generalize and frequently demonize citizens who live in the South. The entire progressive argument relies on this prejudice, and assumes that modern citizens of the former Confederacy are somehow genetically inferior to their elite cousins in the northeast and on the left coast. Southerners, we are frequently and openly reminded, are stupid. They are slow. They are prone to inbreeding. And most of all, they are hateful racists. They must be constantly watched and regulated in a fashion which is not applied to the rest of the country… not for any specific, individual crime they may have committed, but for their place of birth and their bloodline.

And if you can’t see the irony in that, well… you’re probably fighting to make the Voting Rights Act permanent. But we’ll have more on that later today in my special on “White History Month.” Stay tuned.