The Supreme Court recently ruled that the federal government can no longer oversee elections in certain Southern states that have a history of preventing black people from voting. As I understand it, ordinarily elections are Constitutionally a state matter, but because states were in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from denying anyone the vote based on race, the federal government could justify intervening under the Voting Rights Act.
As a technical, legal matter, the question before the Court as I understand it was whether such states are still liable to block black people from voting. But the way it was reported was more like “OMG! The Supreme Court might overturn the Voting Rights Act,” like they were about to rule that blacks no longer had the right to vote or something.
A writer at The New Yorker, Eric Lewis, commenting on the decision (and the affirmative action decision), wrote, “Four members* of the Supreme Court rest easily in the belief that the bad old days of segregated education and poll taxes are matters of historical curiosity, unrelated to the color-blind society in which they think we live.” Poll taxes are matters of historical curiosity. We don’t have them any more, and no state will impose them after this decision. But notice how Lewis equivocates to whether America, over all, is a colorblind society, which all enlightened people know is laughable, and away from the specific questions raised by the case.
If “we” aren’t a “colorblind society,” and if that is the standard for removing scrutiny of states, why were only certain states subject to said scrutiny? Because these specific states, at the time of the Voting Rights Act, were using sinister methods to prevent black people from voting. That’s where the Fifteenth Amendment justification came in. The Court doesn’t have to make vague decisions about whether we are a colorblind society or (in another Lewis formulation) about “the reality of race in this country.”
Lewis is also upset that, in the affirmative action decision, the Court applied past precedents holding that government employing racial distinctions. He wants these only applied to favoritism of whites over blacks, and finds dissonance in the idea that the reasoning from cases that helped blacks are being used to strike down efforts to help blacks: “The Court perceived no dissonance in citing the cases that helped dismantle Jim Crow as basis for the proposition that continued efforts at racial equality were inherently suspect.”
But of course, the past precedents didn’t say anything about applying only in one direction, nor did they state “this Court shall always support black interests against white.” The Court generally speaking doesn’t profess to favor some interests over others, but rather to judge the meaning of the law and Constitution. Does Lewis think the Court was only pretending to do this in the cases that dismantled Jim Crow, that their reasoning was only an excuse to get the result they wanted? Even if that’s true, it helps the Court’s credibility to stick to its precedents rather than obviously favoring one side over the other.
* He treats Justice Thomas separately.