The Confederate flag may be gone, but racist laws remain

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Seventy-two hours after the Confederate flag was lowered for the last time on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol, a more meaningful front in the struggle against racism was opened 170 miles to the north in Winston-Salem, N.C.

On Monday, Judge Thomas Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina began hearing a case called North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory. In fact it is several cases rolled into one, all them of challenging sweeping voting restrictions passed by the North Carolina Legislature in 2013.

“This is our Selma,” one North Carolina NAACP leader said.

The Legislature took action a month after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1965 law had said that some counties in North Carolina, along with nine other, mostly Southern, states and certain jurisdictions in five other states, had to obtain clearance from the Justice Department before altering their election laws. All of the affected areas had histories of race-related voter suppression.

Times have changed, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the 5-4 majority in Shelby County v. Holder. “The (Voting Rights) Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”

The North Carolina Legislature jumped on that, deciding that the state’s current needs no longer included easy voting for its residents. The new law eliminated a week of early voting, ended same-day voter registration and prohibited votes accidentally cast from the wrong precinct from counting. It also imposed a photo-ID law effective in 2016, but that portion of the law is under separate challenge.

There’s little doubt that North Carolinians of all races liked the early voting provision. During the 2012 presidential election, 2.5 million ballots – more than half of all ballots – were cast before Election Day. More than 70 percent of black voters utilized early voting during the 2008 and 2012 general elections.

The ACLU argues that more flexible voting times benefit those with hourly jobs and poor people, who are disproportionately black.

The question before Judge Schroeder is whether the Republican-dominated Legislature intended to suppress the black vote – or whether, given that blacks overwhelmingly tend to vote Democrat – black voters were unintentional victims. It is a distinction without a difference.

Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, will argue that the changes were intended to assure the integrity of elections and to reduce costs.

This is what racism looks like today: High-toned arguments that cloak the disenfranchisement of entire swaths of Americans in bogus legalese.

It is far more pernicious than the “heritage, not hate” justification for flying a Confederate flag. It might be argued that this is “politics, not hate,” but the effect is just the same: People are denied full participation in democracy.

In Missouri, the Legislature has tried time and again to enact voter-ID legislation for political purposes. Two Republicans who want their party’s nomination for secretary of state in 2016 – state Sen. Will Kraus and famous-son Jay Ashcroft – are pushing for a voter ID referendum on the 2016 ballot. Imagine: They want to be the state’s chief election officer, and their first move is to keep people from voting because of an all but nonexistent problem.

After the June 17 killings of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by an avowed racist who had cloaked himself in the Confederate flag, Republican lawmakers identified the flag as the problem. It is “a” problem, but “the” problem was and continues to be the disparate treatment of people of color. You don’t need a burning cross and a battle flag to be a racist.

Removing the flag – from the Capitol, from Wal-Mart, from Amazon – was long overdue. It was a nice gesture. But unless and until it is followed by real equality of opportunity under the law, it is an empty gesture.