The Voting Rights Act and Post-Racialized America—Can We Vote on That?

By Paul Louis Metzger and Tom Krattenmaker

Why is it that while talk abounds of growing racial diversity in our country, a new wave of voting restrictions is sweeping over parts of the country and falling hardest on minorities? Perhaps there is more than coincidence at play.

The Supreme Court’s reframing of the Voting Rights Act to make the individual states responsible for overseeing voting procedures has led many to fear the return of Jim Crow era policies to the country’s polling places. We share this concern. For us, it is not a liberal vs. conservative thing, since one of us is a self-described, secular-leaning progressive (Tom) and the other (Paul) is an Evangelical with more conservative views on many subjects. Nor is it something that only African Americans raise as a concern; we are both white.

No matter our demographic, we have a responsibility to hold accountable the leaders in our democratic system: our elected officials must remain diligent so that Jim Crow policies do not return but simply remain a terrible scar from a deep wound from our democracy’s past. Thus, we firmly believe the federal government must figure out a way to hold the states accountable on voting policies. Discussion ensues as to how Congress might step in so as to protect the rights of minority voters.

We don’t live in a post-racialized society, contrary to what many say. We wonder if those who have made this claim have asked minority groups for their opinion. Let these groups cast votes as to whether or not we live in a post-racialized America.

What is racialization? Racialization (e.g., race’s impact on health care, education, job placement, place of residence, urban development, etc.) does not express itself in fixed, constant terms, but through variables that ebb and flow and evolve. Further to what was stated in a previous post on the subject at this blog,

It is worth noting that according to Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, racialization does not proceed by way of “constants,” but rather “variables.” And yet, many Americans view racialization not in terms of its evolving nature, but in constant, static terms. Thus, Americans tend to limit racialization to a specific timeframe and do not comprehend that racialization is very adaptable and undergoes an evolution over time. Emerson and Smith maintain that there are “grave implications” for failing to recognize that racialization evolves over time…: the more we fail to account for racialization or think that we live in a post-racialized society, the more entrenched racialization becomes (Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000], p. 8).

We are grieved to see the voter ID laws and the like already being implemented in states including South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi. Take for example Texas. According to Frontline,

It only took a few hours for TEXAS to move forward on its voter ID law, considered the strictest in the nation. The law requires Texans to prove their citizenship and their residency in the state. To qualify, you’d need to present forms of ID that are expensive and difficult to obtain for some low-income Americans. It requires a passport — the cheapest of which is $55 — or a copy of your birth certificate, which not all Americans, particularly older ones, have.

A court blocked the law in 2012 because it discriminated against Latino and black voters.

This is not simply a Southern phenomenon, however. While the concern historically and in many respects presently focuses on Southern state voting procedures, racialization plays out in subtle but insidious ways in the North in places like our home city, Portland, Oregon, and it can have a huge and negative impact on voting for ethnic minority groups. As African Americans find themselves pushed to our less-well-off suburbs through property tax increases, subtle forms of red-lining in bank loan practices, and aggressive, even manipulative home buyer practices in some cases, they have less and less solidarity to advocate politically for policy changes at the state level of government. Since Portland is the largest city in Oregon, African Americans were able to advocate strongly for their concerns as a voting bloc for decades in the face of policies that would not represent them well. More and more, gentrification fragments their voices and weakens their ability to effect change. We must figure out ways as community leaders, politicians, bankers, real estate and business owners to reverse this trend. So, too, with the Voting Rights Act.

In a democratic society, all of us are at risk of losing our rights if any one segment loses its rights; after all, ours is a government of all the people by all the people for all the people—with justice (or injustice) for all. We need to guard against voting restrictions promoted as color blind, but that many of us know come down hardest on minorities. So, too, if we are going to say at any point that we live in a post-racialized America, we need to make certain that all people have a voice and a role in the political process—minority populations included. After all, that is the democratic thing to do.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Mark Nicklas

    What is missing in this discussion is the concern that legitimate voters are being disenfranchised by illegal voters and those who vote multiple times. There was considerable concern in the last election regarding fraudulent voters (on both side of the aisle). That is what is behind the voter i.d. laws. There is no relation to the ugly Jim Crow days (a red herring in this discussion). Is it true that the only acceptable i.d.s are prohibitive in cost of availability to some voters? Surely we can remedy that. A nation that depends upon the free exercise of legitimate voters has a responsibility to make that vote possible for everyone while insuring that fraudulent votes don’t disenfranchise America’s citizens.

    • jasmine999

      Jim Crow is never a red herring when it comes to the South. I’m sorry, but the South fought for slavery, lost the war, won the Reconstruction, instituted Jim Crow, then lost the war, AGAIN, thanks to the civil rights legislation they’re trying to undo today. There is a direct correlation here we must accept.

      As far as vote fraud: Yes, there was “considerable concern” regarding fraudulent voters on both sides, as there is excellent evidence that vote fraud, combined by SCOTUS interference, determined the 2000 election. The reliability of computerized voting machines is dubious. Vote fraud by individuals is quite rare.

      • Guest
      • Rob H

        Stop living in the past. The South now leads the nation in integration, and the Northeast and Midwest are by far the most segregated regions in the country. The lowest black voting rates are in the Northeast, and Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state. The worst black unemployment rates
        are in the Midwest. The worst black-to-white wage disparities are in the Midwest. During the past 25 years, black representation on city councils in the South rose by 82%, while in the states outside of the South it only rose by 3% (reference Journal of Politics). Those of you wanting to keep the VRA “as is”, based on data and perceptions from 50 to 150 years ago, are sticking your head in the sand and refusing to take a real look at today’s racial challenges.

        • Tom Krattenmaker

          I am glad that the South leads the nation in integration! But how does that justify new voter restrictions that disproportionately affect African Americans? I recommend this counter-perspective on why voter protections are still necessary — and how developments since the SCOTUS decision make it very clear *why* protections are still necessary.

          • Rob H

            @Tom: I agree that, in this country, gerrymandering and local/state laws that affect voting rights are a significant issue. The problem is that the VRA really only addressed the South. North Carolina is indeed trying to shorten its early voting calendar days, however New York State doesn’t allow early voting at all. Neither does Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc. Why no outcry over those states in the Northeast? Are somehow African Americans not disproportionately affected in the Northeast by lack of early voting (and did you miss my point that black voting rates in the Northeast lag far behind the South)? That’s hypocrisy and ignorance. The Justice Department is a political office, lead by a political appointee by whichever party controls the executive branch, and they have been abusing the VRA for political gain in the South. The VRA, by using data from 1964, was counter productive in that it ignored the reality of racism in 2013 America.

        • Cliff Chappell

          Stop living in the past is not the issue,
          Stop Ignoring The Past is more like it.
          Rob H., thank you for sharing your thoughts and those numbers. I applaud the south for the gains that have
          been made, and why were they made – largely because of the VRA. But it is exactly those kinds of numbers that
          terrify Jim Crow. You mentioned 50 – 150
          years ago. When I look back into that
          era, what I see happening today with these kind of numbers was starting to
          happen back then and that’s what gave birth and the rise of Jim Crow. I won’t say that the VRA is perfect, but it
          was enough to allow more inclusion and the voice of many to be heard. Does it need overhauling, absolutely. But in the overhauling process, don’t be
          fooled, but beware, Jim Crow is the ghost sitting at the table and he is very influential
          in the process. Some see him but many don’t. The Jim Crow attitude is alive and well in
          this country and I can give many scenarios to that fact, i.e. in the south when
          I meet a white person as I walk down the sidewalk, its expected of me still to step
          aside. If I don’t, words may or may not be exchanged, but the implied attitude
          is that I did something wrong. Statistics are good and laws are good but Jim
          Crow has to go. We can regulate, we can
          legislate and we can try to place these problems into nice packages, but not much
          will change until people change. The statement
          made in this article “Racialization … does not express
          itself in fixed, constant terms, but through variables that ebb and flow and
          evolve” is true, powerful and profound and only when this statement is fully
          understood and acted upon, will we see real change.

        • pmetzger

          Further to what Cliff Chappell and Tom Krattenmaker wrote, one of the points to keep in mind for those reading this post and exchange is that the issue is not North vs. South. Racialization is not limited to one geographical sphere. The blog post sought to show how the North is also problematized, even today, on matters pertaining to racialization. It may have been Dr. King, or those associated with him, who said that in the North, people don’t care how high you get, but how close you get; in the South, people don’t care how close you get, but how high you get. And again, in the North, they love the race but hate the person; in the South, they love the person but hate the race. It is not important to my argument if such generalizing claims hold universally in the past and also the present; the point is to show that there are various complexities. We must remain vigilant in the North and South to attend to the variety of variables that shape racialization. Thus, we must be attentive to what is at stake throughout the nation bound up with the VRA.

  • David Springer

    Some of the things that I think are often overlooked in this discussion includes 1) the pre-registration that is often required/completed before voting–I presently live in Oregon where we have mail-in voting and ONLY pre-registered voters receive the initial mail-in ballot. Now, it is possible to same day vote, but one must show some ID, and that ballot is deemed provisional. In Illinois, where I previously resided, one must be on the pre-printed voting list before a ballot can be given. I had lived in the same very expensive house in my very white suburban Republican neighborhood for nearly a decade and therefore the election judges/clerks recognized me and had my ballot ready as I walked up to them. An elderly person who has been voting in the same neighborhood since the Eisenhower administration should not have to show ID when they are already known. Besides, unlike withdrawing cash or buying a gun (which can be a short, few minute process), voting already has a built-in delay feature which makes fraudulent voting much difficult.

    2) It is soo representative of middle-class, privileged culture to possess the requisite IDs listed above. When I first moved to Portland as a 40+ very middle-class, white male, I was nor certain if I was going to stay so I did not update/transfer my Drivers License right away. Later, As befitting the lifestyle here, I sold my car and biked or used transit, so a license was superfluous. It was only after several years when I wanted to change my bank account from a well-known national bank to a smaller local one that an ID became necessary. But I did not have a copy of my birth certificate, nor a valid passport (it had lapsed), was never in the military, did not own a gun, and in order to get a state ID and register to vote (which is concurrent in Oregon), I had to FLY back to Illinois to get a certified copy of my birth certificate. My aged mother is not allowed to fly for health reasons and it would be prohibitively expensive for some to travel back to their birthplaces to get a birth certificate.

    3) In more “hippie” Oregon, and in the earliest years of the last century, home births don’t always result in birth certificates. I personally knew 4 people who were in their 80s who had no birth certificate at all, as well as two families with 5-year old children (kindergarten aged) born at home also without birth certificates. Are they not citizens? Should they be prohibited from voting?

    I am not certain that it is explicitly racism to require these documents, but given the atmosphere of stop-and-frisk policies, immigration document challenges, “driving while black” or “driving while Mexican” traffic stops, persistent harassment of convenience store clerks, taxi drivers, and/or people wearing turbans, one must wonder just what is driving these policy changes. At the very least, given the difficulty that some seniors and poor folks are experiencing, classism might be an issue, which is just as wrong.

  • Cliff Chappell

    Post-Racialized America? When did that happen? Oh, you did say that I
    could vote on that. Thanks for writing this article and pointing out some of my concerns as well as the concerns of many people of color — and the concerns of those who are white and privileged who understand, although some on a limited bases, what this means.

    I like the way you stated how this “has led many to fear the return of Jim Crow era policies …” and yes, this is a major fear and concern. Why is it such a concern? Because the practices of Jim Crow never ceased even when the policies were changed. Now that states have free course to re-establish
    their own policies, they can now “legally” practice Jim Crow. Anyone who thinks this is not about race and racism is fooling themselves. They are either naive, fully aware, or semi-aware and dangerous. You made another statement that is right on point. When thinking about or discussing racism, one must understand that “racialization does not proceed by way of “constants” but rather “variables.” Those who perpetuate racism justify it by defining it in their own minds as a very
    limited “constant” that can be nicely packed in a box. But those who must live under the curse of racism do so while being fully aware of its many “variables,” twists and turns. Therefore this reframing of the Voting Rights Act is of grave concern to me because those making the new policies will do so for the benefit of “good” “Americans.” Thanks for your discussion of the view of many Americans. Again you are right on point in this whole discussion. When I hear of what Americans think, I immediately know that I am not included, but excluded from that discussion. To me and most people of color understand that America means white people. Although technically I am an American, I live every day being reminded by Americans that I am an African-American or Black. The new policies will be written for Americans, that means those with money, privilege, jobs, home-owners, legal documents, credits cards, bank accounts, etc., etc., but not for those who must negotiate the racialized barriers daily for their survival. So please when you write the new policies, write them to include all Americans and be aware that Jim Crow is also at the table.

  • Gloria Young

    Thank you Paul for your courage and fortitude — The attack to the Voting Rights Act is another poor “ISM” along with racism, classism, absenteeism, anarchism, bureaucraticism, capitalism, egalitarianism… .– What happened to: “We the people.”

  • Y. A. Warren

    You are right about the race issue in so many ways. Those who want to turn back the clock to the days when we honored only a literal interpretation of the constitution don’t seem to realize that many of them would be similarly disenfranchised by the founding fathers.