It’s featured, with good reason, as a Say What? on Doonesbury.
For arrogance and insensitivity, it is quite breath-taking.
It originated in a HuffPo piece:
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Friday that he was “absolutely shocked” to hear Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia describe a key piece of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant achievements of the civil rights movement, as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” earlier this week.
“I’m not easily surprised by anything, but that took me to a place I haven’t been in a long time,” Clyburn said of Scalia’s comments, during an interview with HuffPost. “What Justice Scalia said, to me, was, ‘The 15th Amendment of the Constitution ain’t got no concerns for me because I’m white and proud.’”
Now the third most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives, Clyburn’s work on civil rights issues goes as far back as the age of 12, when he was elected president of his local NAACP youth chapter. He organized civil rights demonstrations in college, and even met his wife in jail after a protest.
Growing up in South Carolina, Clyburn said he “grew almost immune” to the racist comments being made around him. He said he will never forget hearing the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) defending his opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act by saying, in Clyburn’s paraphrased words, “Our negroes are pleased with their plight.”
To a mere Anglo-Irish West Brit (enough put-downs, already!) such as Malcolm, that needs a bit of teasing out.
Amendment XV of the US Constitution passed Congress (effectively on a partisan vote) on 26th February 1869; and was finally ratified on 3rd February 1870, when Iowa became the 28th State to accede. Tennessee ratified as late as 8th April 1997. Yes, Indeed.
Like so much of the prose of the Constitution (the Second Amendment, or rather the way it has been tortured to fit notwithstanding), the wording is pellucidly clear:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
And it didn’t work. All it did was oblige States to remove “white” as a condition for the suffrage.
The Supreme Court then made sure it wouldn’t and couldn’t work. In October 1876 the case of United States v. Reece (92 U.S. 214) came before the Court, which declared (with two dissenters):
The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution does not confer the right of suffrage, but it invests citizens of the United States with the right of exemption from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise on account of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and empowers Congress to enforce that right by “appropriate legislation.”
That was the green light to voter eligibility laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, restricting registration places — when all else failed, sheer intimidation — all to ensure in the Deep South the intention of the Amendment was effectively by-passed.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma: Sunday, 7th March 1965
Selma was the flash-point: about half the population, but just 2% of the electorate were African-Americans. Led by Martin Luther King, SNCC had organised 600 in a planned march from Selma to Montgomery. Reaching the bridge, the march was confronted by armed state troopers. The sheriff warned the marchers they had two minutes to disperse. Even before that limit was reached, the deputies attacked, some on horses, using clubs, tear-gas and canes. Nothing new, perhaps — except for the presence of television, which meant within two days there were sympathy demonstrations in 80 cities across the nation.
Only on the third attempt did King lead a peaceful march.
Out of that came the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been re-affirmed on four subsequent occasions, the most recent in 2006, when it was approved in the Senate 98-0, and in the House 390-33. Now, cheered on by Republicans and FoxNews, Section 5 is up for grabs and before the Supreme Court.
If Justice Scalia hadn’t sold the pass to Jim Clyburn, then he managed it in the oral arguments on Shelby County v. Holder. Here is David Horsey in the Los Angeles Times:
In court on Wednesday, however, Scalia mocked that vote. He said the Senate’s unanimity simply proved the law had not been given serious consideration. The senators were afraid, he said, to cast a vote against a law with a “wonderful” name. He went on to assert that the reauthorization of the act was merely “a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
That sort of legal reasoning may be good enough for someone sitting on a bar stool well into his third pint, but it is not good enough for the highest court in the land. Scalia makes self-serving assumptions about what was on the minds of senators in 2006 — afraid, not serious, enamored with a name — with no facts to back up his barbs.
Tossing actual statistics back at Scalia, Justice Elena Kagan cited a string of continued voting-rights violations. As to the state of mind of the senators, she said the unanimous vote was pretty good proof that the evidence of contemporary abuses was convincing, even to conservative Southerners.
“It was clear to 98 senators, including every senator from a covered state, who decided that there was a continuing need for this piece of legislation,” Kagan said.
Undeterred, Scalia opined that a law governing voting rights is “not the kind of question you can leave to Congress.” Oh, really? The right to vote is the core of our constitutional democracy. It is not, as Scalia says, “a racial entitlement,” it is an American entitlement. It seems that might be a very useful thing for Congress to watch over and protect. It was eminently important in 1965 and remains important today.