DOMA, the VRA and our narrow ideas of “justice”

I’m overjoyed about the DOMA ruling earlier this week. But coming on the tails of the gutting of the Voting Rights Amendment and the meh ruling on affirmative action, it tasted less sweet. And it reflected a very simplistic American idea of “fairness.” That’s what I’m writing about in the Guardian this week:

Unfortunately, the American conception of equality seems to operate on a sixth-grade level. We understand that disparate treatment is wrong, but we have a harder time reckoning with more insidious forms of bigotry. We believe we’re a meritocracy and that as long as there aren’t laws directly marginalizing certain groups of people, then our nation is a fair one where all of us have equal opportunities. Much of the public and many of our courts are sympathetic to relatively simplistic arguments based on legal equality: laws that treat some people differently than others are bad. Of course, many laws that treat some people differently than others are bad, but battling discrimination is more complicated than that.

As if determined to prove correct the concerns of anti-racists, within 24 hours of the court gutting the VRA, six out of nine VRA states proposed new voter identification laws which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. And although the claim that we’re so post-racism that we no longer need the VRA sounds nice, it’s not reality. Yes, we have a biracial president. Our nation has also elected a whopping three African-American senators in 136 years.

The problems aren’t just with voting, of course. The legacy of slavery and the reality of ongoing discrimination can’t be wiped away with legal changes alone or undone in a generation or two. Yet efforts to counter those ills are increasingly seen as discriminatory by white people frustrated with their slowly ceding racial dominance. Affirmative action, another issue decided by the supreme court this week, is case in point. Although universities take all kinds of factors into account when determining admissions, the fact that some of them offer a tiny benefit to traditionally marginalized groups outrages white students like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the latest affirmative action case, who feel entitled to admission at the school of their choice and will sue when they don’t get what they want. You don’t hear a lot of complaining about the fact that universities look at factors such as legacy status, participation in many pricey extracurricular activities or graduation from top-notch high schools – all of which disproportionately benefit white and upper-class applicants.

By recognizing that black and Latino students often lack access to the institutions that help whites in the admissions process and attempting to counteract that reality, universities are allegedly treating applicants differently based on the color of their skin. For those with a simple view of equality, that’s wrong. Although the supreme court decision didn’t do away with affirmative action, in the name of fairness it placed more impediments in the way of universities attempting to make their admissions processes more fair. It’s a victory for colorblind rules. But since we don’t live in a colorblind world, it’s a loss for racial justice.

There’s much to celebrate this week, and the court’s marriage ruling is undoubtedly one for the history books. But until we reckon with the reality of bigotry and discrimination – that it’s not just about getting rid of laws that treat people differently – we’ll remain stuck in a vastly unequal reality, wondering childishly why the world isn’t fair.

You can read the whole thing here.

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13 comments for “DOMA, the VRA and our narrow ideas of “justice”

  1. June 29, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Yep, right on, Jill. D: This is a horrible disaster.

    Mostly, as an LGBTQ WOC, I can’t help but wonder how others in my shoes must feel – kissed on one cheek and slapped on the other in consecutive days? Zow.

  2. Azalea
    June 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    This is exactly how I feel. It seems like a divide and conquer act; give the LGBTIQ community what they want/need/deserve right after robbing the POC what they want/need/deserve, stir, serve and watch one party celebrate while another mourns. I wanted DOMA to go down, I wanted same sex couples to enjoy the same rights and freedoms of opposite sex couples. But I couldn’t find joy in that just hours after being told that being a POC made me a POS not worthy of constitutional protection.

  3. Comrade Kevin
    June 29, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I respectfully disagree with you. It is not fair to assert that certain segments of the country are always going to encroach rights. I am a native Southerner and have seen considerable changes over the past 40 years. The status quo must give way to the idea that reform is possible.

    • Kierra
      June 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      If there was a chance in hell that the VRA would be extended to the entire country, I might agree with you. But the basic fact is that the counties in question could have bypassed the extra scrutiny by not trying to pass voting restrictions over a certain period of time. Many counties managed to do this. The particular counties that brought the suit did not.

    • June 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      I’d buy that those states have changed, if this hadn’t happened in under two days.

      As it stands, I believe the checks and balances should be extended to all states, not some (thereby eliminating the discriminatory aspect).

    • GallingGalla
      June 29, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      But the Supreme Court has destroyed the mechanism for that reform. The fact that several states are scrambling to pass restrictive voting legislation in the wake of the ruling shows that the VRA is still needed. Want to make the VRA fair? Then extend it to all states. *That’s* what the Supreme Court should have done.

      This decision is the worst SCOTUS civil rights decision that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’m not young.

    • Willard
      June 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      The thing is, some places were able to play by the rules and qualify for their bailout from the preclearance requirement. Others (like Shelby here) kept trying the same shit over and over again and ran crying to the SCOTUS. This wasn’t about the whole THA SOUTH, some places have changed and gotten out from under the DoJ, but there are still large and small recidivists. Not to mention the places that have been added or should be added for blatantly discriminatory tactics.

      The SCOTUS did a fucked up thing, but it was a fucked up thing they all but said they were going to do four years ago. I saw that Holder had plans in place for what to do if Section 5 was invalidated with this case, but what the hell did they do with Section 4 between then and now? There are certain modern versions of the tests originally covered in the VRA that should automatically invite DoJ investigation, literacy and education requirements are dinosaurs, but Voter ID is the Next Best Thing in disenfranchisement. As much fun as it is to blame the judges, they aren’t the ones writing the laws. The administration has had some serious feet of clay when it comes to being proactive on this shit.

    • EG
      June 29, 2013 at 10:28 pm

      The status quo must give way to the idea that reform is possible.

      Do not confuse “not buying that the states subject to federal review under the VRA are no longer going to disenfranchise PoC” with “not thinking that reform is possible.”

      Reform may well be possible. But it sure hasn’t happened yet. If it had, these states wouldn’t have had their voting laws blocked MULTIPLE TIMES in the past TEN YEARS.

      Your faith in the high-minded egalitarianism of former Jim Crow states is touching. Demanding the same faith from PoC who wish to vote there is bullshit.

  4. Donna L
    June 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Want to make the VRA fair? Then extend it to all states. *That’s* what the Supreme Court should have done.

    The VRA does apply in all states; it’s the particular enforcement mechanism that was held unconstitutional. It would be impossible for the Supreme Court to extend that mechanism to all states. It’s Congress that imposed the federal approval requirements for particular states — a requirement invalidated by the Supreme Cout — and it’s Congress that would have to extend them to all States. It requires a law to do that, and the Supreme Court has no power whatsoever to enact legislation, even if you had 9 progressives on the Court. The chances of getting Congress to pass new legislation imposing such requirements on any states are slim at the moment. Imposing them on all states? Nil.

    • GallingGalla
      June 29, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      Whoops! My ignorance is showing. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Willard
      June 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks Donna, I was pretty sure that was how it worked out, but the big NAL floating over my head left me unsure.

  5. pheenobarbidoll
    June 29, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Suddenly I’m reminded of ” The South doesn’t care how close we get, as long as we don’t get too big and the North doesn’t care how big we get as long as we don’t get too close”.

  6. trees
    June 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm

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