If any good can be wrung from the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump's dismal response, perhaps they can serve as a much-needed reminder that the problem of racism might not be quite as solved as some Americans would like to believe. Yes, progress has been made. But there could not be clearer evidence that our government, institutions, and society have much more work to do.
Unfortunately, we do not always see it this way. We often consider ourselves a redeemed nation that has banished racism to the past. This mindset has consequences, and they are playing out in our city streets, as well as in our elections today.
Four years ago, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court changed how the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) could be enforced. States with histories of discrimination in the implementation of voting rights were required by the act to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice for certain changes to state laws or voting practices. This was an attempt on the part of the federal government to prevent states from making discriminatory changes to their election procedures. In 1965, this was understood as a reasonable if not welcome reaction to the longstanding prevalence of Jim Crow practices in Southern states.
By 2013, the Supreme Court argued through Chief Justice John Roberts' decision that enough time had passed to warrant a reconsideration of the assumptions underlying the VRA. In two key passages, Roberts noted that treating some states differently "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day" was no longer justifiable. "Our nation has changed," he concluded.
This presumption — that America and the South are not the same places today as they were in 1965 — is logical. It is also seriously flawed.
In a vacuum, Roberts' decision makes sense; an act passed to remedy problems specific to a time and place might be outdated after 50 years. And certainly American society has changed since 1965. However, recent events demonstrate the flaws in the assumption that racism is less of a problem today simply because its more obvious symbols, like "Colored Only" doors on public buildings, are gone, and African-Americans are not being barred from polling places en masse by the threat of violence from white mobs, as in the past.
Roberts' mistake is a common one among white Americans. Unsurprisingly, white and black Americans perceive the prevalence of racism very differently. This dynamic creates tension between a part of the population that feels like much has been accomplished, and another part that feels like many problems still remain. In reality, these views are not mutually exclusive. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement have been real and substantial, but they do not add up to a "solution" to a problem as complex and deeply rooted as racism. The fact that the Voting Rights Act produced improvements was taken by the court as a sign that it had done its job and was no longer necessary.
But rather than considering the problems targeted by the Voting Rights Act solved, it makes more sense to consider whether those problems are now manifesting themselves in other ways.
And indeed, problems with race and access to voting are numerous. Voter ID requirements — particularly when states close offices or reduce state services in black or Hispanic areas — have a demonstrated discriminatory impact. The aggressive purging of voter registration rolls culls disproportionately high numbers of black and Hispanic voters. Felon and ex-felon disenfranchisement suppresses African-American turnout considerably in many states. The reduction or elimination of alternative voting options like early voting and absentee ballots disproportionately burdens lower-income voters, and people of color are more likely to belong to that group. And the use of race as a factor in the process of redistricting is in some ways more of a mess today than in the '60s now that technology allows the carving out of legislative districts with remarkable precision.
For every kind of institutional racism that is obvious to the naked eye (e.g. black voters being physically barred from the polls or murdered for exercising their rights), there are several more that are less obvious. In the past week or so, we have seen some very explicit reminders that racism — even the kind of torch-waving, swastika-bearing racism that we have liked to think of as a thing of the past — is alive and well among some Americans. The fact that part of the problem is rhetoric coming directly from the White House underscores that this is hardly a phenomenon limited to the fringes of society.
As we move forward, we would do well to remember Charlottesville and our president's response when we consider important issues like criminal justice reform, ballot access and electoral integrity, income inequality, and education policy. In every case, we can find evidence of improvement and assume the problem is solved. Or, we can remember that racism isn't "over" but alive and not merely a problem among extreme outliers. Things have changed, but to say they are better does not imply that they are now great.