Is the Second Reconstruction over?
The first ended with the withdrawal of Union troops from the Southern states as part of a deal that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency after the disputed election of 1876.
The second began with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a century after Appomattox. Under the VRA, Southern states seeking to make even minor changes in voting laws had to come to Washington to plead their case before the Justice Department and such lions of the law as Eric Holder.
Southern states were required to get this pre-clearance for any alterations in voting laws because of systematic violations of the 14th and 15th Amendment constitutional rights of black Americans to equal access to polling places and voting booths.
The South had discriminated by using poll taxes, gerrymandering and literacy tests, among other tactics. Dixie was in the penalty box because it had earned a place there.
What the Supreme Court did Tuesday, in letting the South out of the box, is to declare that, as this is not 1965, you cannot use abuses that date to 1965, but have long since disappeared, to justify indefinite federal discrimination against the American South.
You cannot impose burdens on Southern states, five of which recorded higher voting percentages among their black populations in 2012 than among their white populations, based on practices of 50 years ago that were repudiated and abandoned in another era.
You cannot punish Southern leaders in 2013 for the sins of their grandfathers. As Chief Justice John Roberts noted, black turnout in 2012 was higher in Mississippi than in Massachusetts.
Does this mean the South is now free to discriminate again?
By no means. State action that discriminates against minority voters can still be brought before the Department of Justice.
Even the “pre-clearance” provision of the VRA remains. All the court has said is that if Congress wishes to impose a pre-clearance provision on a state or group of states, Congress must have more evidence to justify unequal treatment than what “Bull” Connor did in Birmingham back in 1965.
Congress could pass a bill today authorizing Justice Department intervention in any state where the registration of blacks, Hispanics or Asians fell below 60 percent of that electorate.
What Congress can no longer do is impose conditions on Southern states from which Northern states are exempt. Washington can no longer treat the states unequally – for that, too, is a violation of the Constitution.
The Roberts court just took a giant stride to restoring the Union.
Yet the hysterical reaction to the decision reveals a great deal.
What do critics say they are afraid of?
While conceding that immense progress has been made with the huge turnout of black voters in the South and the re-election of a black president, they say they fear that without the pre-clearance provision this would never have happened. And now that the provision no longer applies to the South, the evil old ways will return.
On several counts this is disheartening.
For what the critics of the court decision are saying is that, no matter the progress made over half a century, they do not trust the South to deal fairly and decently with its black citizens, without a club over its head. They do not believe the South has changed in its heart from the days of segregation.
They think the South is lying in wait for a new opportunity to disfranchise its black voters. And they think black Southerners are unable to defend their own interests – without Northern liberal help.
In this belief there are elements of paranoia, condescension and bigotry.
Many liberals not only do not trust the South, some detest it. And many seem to think it deserves to be treated differently than the more progressive precincts of the nation.
Consider Wednesday’s offering by Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson. The South, he writes, is the home of “so-called right-to-work laws” and hostility to the union shop, undergirded by “the virulent racism of the white Southern establishment,” a place where a “right-wing antipathy toward workers’ rights” is pandemic.
The South is the “the heartland of cheap-labor America. … When it wants to slum, business still goes to the South.” Then there are those “reactionary white Republican state governments.”
Were a conservative to use the term “black” as a slur the way Meyerson spits out the word “white,” he would be finished at the Post. Meyerson’s summation:
“If the federal government wants to build a fence that keeps the United States safe from the danger of lower wages and poverty and their attendant ills – and the all-round fruitcakery of the right-wing white South – it should build that fence from Norfolk to Dallas. There is nothing wrong with a fence as long as you put it in the right place.”
Harold looks forward to the day that a surging Latino population forces “epochal political change” on a detestable white South.