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Is Racism History? Not Nearly

As a recent transplant to North Carolina, people back home in Utah frequently ask me if the Southern states are markedly more racist than the rest. 

It’s a difficult question to answer, not least of all because I’m white and any experience with racism is indirect. However, from what I can see the racism found in the South is the same racism you find anywhere in America: not active, explicit discrimination, but entrenched institutional bias. 

What makes the South different is that African Americans make up a larger portion of the population, and because of the region’s history, the institutional rot runs much deeper.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, that history no longer holds sway. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder - the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - Roberts declares, “Our country has changed.” 

The court holds that active racial discrimination in voting laws is a thing of the past, and that the system of requiring specific jurisdictions to clear any changes in voting laws with the federal government was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” 

Let’s set aside the inherent absurdity of a member of the majority proclaiming to minorities that they no longer face discrimination at the polls. 

We can even set aside Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent, filled as it is with examples of how the Voting Rights Act has been successful in curbing racially biased voting laws in the past five years. 

The flaw at the core of Robert’s thinking is that racism is a thing to be conquered, rather than an undercurrent of American life. 

Racism hasn’t been defeated - it’s pure, demonstrable folly to believe that it has - but its harm can be mitigated with enforceable legislation. The Voting Rights Act was a testament to that fact, and its most forceful element has now been voided.

The Supreme Court’s decision was almost immediately followed by declarations from several states that they would move forward with new voter laws that likely would have faced tough scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act, including controversial redistricting plans and voter ID laws. 

These new measures are what Justice Ginsburg calls “second-generation barriers” to voting, meaning that while their explicit intent may not be racist in nature, they have the real-life effect of disenfranchising voters of color.

Ironically, the weakness of these new discriminatory laws may be in just how broad and vague they are. 

This type of law won’t only affect voters along racial lines, but also along lines of class and age: low-income people and the elderly are the least likely to come up with valid photo ID. 

Indeed, every new voter suppression tactic is required to cast a wider net than those that came before it, an ultimately untenable strategy. 

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