The cost of America’s first black president

By Janai S. Nelson
June 28, 2013

President Barack Obama addresses supporters at his election night victory rally in Chicago, Nov. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Barack Obama, America’s first black president, can be credited with many milestones — a comprehensive federal healthcare bill, taking down the world’s most wanted terrorist, signing the Fair Pay Act for gender pay equality, to name a few.

The obliteration of the Voting Rights Act, however, was certainly unintended. Despite the Justice Department’s zealous defense of the act’s constitutionality in Shelby County v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down Section 4, the core of the act, on the grounds that it is not justified by “current needs.” Substituting its judgment for Congress’s, the court ignored a more than 5,000-page record of “current needs” that Congress relied on in 2006 when if reauthorized, with overwhelming support, the act’s challenged provisions.

The Shelby County decision is the latest strike in a multi-front movement to restrict the vote precipitated by Obama’s historic election. In the “post-racial” fog that rolled in with the 2008 elections, there have been sweeping attacks on minority voter participation. Most recently, Texas has waged high-pitched battles defending its discriminatory redistricting plans, Florida passed unprecedented voter registration restrictions and Republican-led state legislatures across the nation have passed a contagion of voter ID laws.

The minority voting power that helped elect Obama, nonetheless, seems to have instigated a willful amnesia among the court’s conservative majority. Despite this flurry of recent voting restrictions, the court found that there is no current justification for the act’s federal oversight of mostly Southern states with histories of virulent racism. Instead, the court ruled Tuesday that the act’s “coverage formula” — which designates which jurisdictions are to be covered by the law — violated the Constitution by treating some states differently than others.

This newfangled equal treatment of states theory trumped the equal treatment of voters principle embodied in the Voting Rights Act and in the 14th and 15th Amendments. While many states may not treat all eligible voters equally, some have been undeniably worse at it than others.

What do we lose with Tuesday’s decision? Without the federal oversight formula intact, the Voting Rights Act has lost both its muscular force to prevent states and municipalities from enforcing discriminatory election laws and its subtler deterrent effect. States with a proven record of seeking to disenfranchise eligible voters will no longer confront the obstacle of a watchful Justice Department. Jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination, many with recent records of election law violations, can regulate elections unleashed with no expectations that they will maintain the hard-fought racial progress that the Voting Rights Act’s anti-retrogression standard enforced.

Almost tongue in cheek, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, invites Congress to craft new legislation to replace the coverage formula he struck down. By punting to Congress, however, the court has kicked the can down a road to nowhere. Today’s Congress, wracked by partisan division, has been largely ineffectual on crucial social issues. There is little reason to think that this critical issue, with its deep ideological and partisan dimensions, will be any different.

Nonetheless, today’s Congress owes it to the 89th Congress, which passed the Voting Rights Act in the shadow of Jim Crow, and the Congresses that reauthorized Section 5 four times since, to find a solution that protects against the venomous voting discrimination that has characterized most of American history.

Without the force of these key provisions, we run the risk of inviting discrimination in voting on a scale that we haven’t seen in nearly 50 years.

We will know in the months to come whether our lawmakers will rise to the challenge the court has set. It is now a test of the citizenry to demand from our elected officials the justice we have been unable to obtain from the Supreme Court.

Congress must devise a constitutional and comprehensive solution to protect minority voting strength from backsliding to days of old. States can play an important role in protecting our democracy by legislating against voting laws that have a disparate impact on minority voters and lack sufficient justification.

The Shelby County decision is a gauntlet that Congress and states can perilously ignore out of partisan division or take up for patriotic interests to protect our democracy. If, indeed, we have paid for our first black president with rollbacks on the very legislation that produced the unique phenomenon of his election, we must ask whether we’ve received a sufficient return.

That question will depend, in part, on whether efforts to bridge the racial gap in education and economic equality will continue to be blocked by a recklessly divided Congress and sidestepped by the Supreme Court (see Monday’s decision on affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas) or if Congress can enact a new federal oversight formula that fairly protects the equality of all voters.

If not, the price our democracy has paid in gutting the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in history is one we simply cannot afford.


ILLUSTRATION (Insert): Matt Mahurin




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The author is trying to cut the cloth both ways.

America was “heroic” when President Obama was elected in 2008(and again in 2012), (with a majority of white voters) as we finally looked past race (or at least color) at the national level. I seem to remember something about America being “post racial” within days.

Now, when the Supreme Court says we have evolved past the point of qualifying by race (post-racial?)–you demand that race (again) be the primary consideration.

While you may continue to seek perfection among imperfect human beings and in voting processes, should that be your mission in life. However, to block the retirement of 50 year old legislation because the world is not perfect, defies logic. You also ignore the numbers of individuals who are members of protected classes holding elective office at all levels of government. Or the fact that blacks in some northern states vote at lower levels than those in the south. How does one legislate a solution to that problem?

While the author is entitled to her opinion, she also has the “right” to be wrong. Then again, this decision of SCOTUS will further serve to ensure “civil rights” lawyers will have even more opportunities to pursue their (perceived) grievances at all levels of government.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

I posted this comment in the followng article, but it applies equally well to this one. 13/06/28/the-supreme-courts-race-impatie nce/#comment-73540

Continuation of our “civil rights” laws is an obscene extension of the old “Jim Crow” laws there were meant to reverse legitimate grievances of former slaves that had continued after the end of the Civil War in 1865, mainly in the South.

However, simply preventing the continuation of “Jim Crow” laws apparently wasn’t enough for some people, including the US Supreme Court (which in its history has had a track record of being wrong as many times as it has been right).

As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, which was the original basis for implementing “reverse discrimination”, including “racial quotas” (i.e. “affirmative action”, which is blatant discimination by any other name) that were applied uniformly against those Americans living today who had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery or its result.

It was even applied in those states who had no history of slavery, AND perversely also in those states who contributed (white) troops to aid in suppressing slavery during the Civil War. How many white people died to free black slaves? That is a little fact that is never mentioned.

In any case, “Civil rights” legislation is a “zero sum” game for the American people — whoever they might be anymore, since now there are so many “pseudo-Americans” (for example, “Mexican-Americans”) here that we have lost track of who and what an “American” is supposed to be, or what we stand for as a nation. If you feel the need to be a “pseudo-American”, you don’t belong in my country. It is as simple as that!

This is especially true in the case of the massive numbers of Latinos who are here, legally and illegally, with NO such “moral” claim to special treatment under the law as do blacks. Neither they nor their ancesotors were slaves in this country. What the hell is the obtuse reasoning for granting THEM “special privileges” under the law as to education, employment or any other social services?

There are limits as to how much “civil rights” we can take as a nation and still survive. We have become a “Mecca” for those who wish to take advantage of our stupidly liberal laws that desperately need revision, if for no other reason than to assure the protection of our borders against anyone who wants to be here. In truth, we have NO idea how many “illegal aliens” are here.

The present net effect of this miscreant national angst of slavery is that the “core” beliefs of our white ancestors — the same ones who fought and died to free black slaves 150 years ago in the Civil War — have become a “threatened species” in this country that they supposedly fought to keep free.

What kind of “perverted logic” is driving this nation when illegal aliens receive better treatment under the laws than US citizens?

I would like to remind you of something the incumbent President Lincoln once said.


“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.[1]”


It is incredibly sad to say we have now come “full circle” once again, after all the deaths, pain and suffering to the same exact place as a nation Lincoln described in 1858 — except this time it is white Americans who are the slaves in their own country.

The fact is that white Americans have become a minority in their own nation. We as a race are already suffering from the growing numbers of minorities in what used to be our country. It WILL continue to get much worse until whites have no rights at all — thanks to the voting power of our new “citizens”, most of whom do not like our culture, but like our liberal attitudes and “deep pockets” they use to advance themselves at our expense.

Perhaps this is really the goal of the new “slaveholders”, whose ultimate goal is to exact full revenge for what they perceive they are still “owed” by this nation. The fact they choose to present their case as being “common cause” with Latinos is pathetic beyond belief.

These two groups have NOTHING in “common” except a desire to drain our economy for their benefit alone. This is simply a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The fact that their “common cause” will not last beyond the perceived “enemy” of the whites in this country will mattter little to those whites who are trapped in this country in the future.

How much longer are we to allow this massive scam by these people, this obscene diminution of OUR civil rights as white Americans in the name of “justice” to continue before we no longer have the ability to do anything about it?

Who will free US from slavery, as our ancestors did for the black slaves?

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

No one will free us from slavery. As soon as the entitled groups have sucked out all that remains of value in the U.S., they will join us as the country goes down the drain. I would guess that we have about twenty years or so before we reach third-rate economic and military status. Amusing to me that those who coined the phrase “experiment in democracy” to describe the U.S. never really seemed to believe that the experiment could actually fail.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

this is not the 1960″s when we taught and fought against racism and civil rights.We took it to our schools we made laws to protect against racism and rewarded company’s with tax breaks. Entitlement programs are using tax money to put them in the front of the line for housing to food stamps and many other rewards to entitlements . Today the year is 2013 times have changed now we have politics that use the words of racism and Blacks use it as a crutch to lobby too and even commit crimes with . I Dare any white family to send there child to a black community and school and see what happens . Any black family would be greeted with open arms in any community I know of ! The entitlements and funding of Racism has turned the page ..I believe we need to educate racism for more respect from African America now

Posted by BigScott | Report as abusive

Obama is not black. He was raised by some nice elderly white grandparents in a very pretty state.

Posted by Chris_colorado | Report as abusive

What I get is that its fine for minorities to redistrict to their advantage giving them more power then their fair share based on population. But when the other side does it its racist? Why is it racism can only apply towards Republicans and white people in a liberals eyes? Its also alright for Obama in numerous different agenda’s and legislations he’s pushed to specificy higher treatment for minorities and lesser treatment for white people? How is that not racism? How does that *fix* racism?

Further how does Voter ID which is one of Obama’s key uses of the VRA hurt minorities? Citizens can get an ID and the cost is very negligible further the vast majority have ID as I assume they buy alcohol, have bank accounts, rent property, cash checks, or even collect welfare.

Further even more Obama’s agenda actually hurts minorities the most. Those suffering from his demand to legalize illegal aliens the most are minorities who have double the unemployment as many would work the low income jobs. Food stamp usage has doubled while he has no programs to put people on welfare to work making an uneducated dependent class of minorities. Obamacare is also a travesty to all Americans and doesn’t fix at all the healthcare costs that keep minorities from managing themselves and just passes their expense to the middle class.

Posted by Syanis | Report as abusive

I have a comment about the comments. Why do those who are recipients of ill gotten gain always “crying about” there country? Because of the genocide that was practiced & to this day still perpetuated on The Indian Nations.This self righteous attitude needs to die. And miss informed & willfully ignorant people who don’t own up to there misguided fears of people of “any color.” hide behind laws that are setup to only benefit them? Actually America owes Mexicans a great deal in part because of all the barriers in the past that were practiced against Mexican goods through all kinds of concocted financial barriers & treaties. I call it strangulation thus her citizens are forced to pour across the border! Now that they are here & productive non citizens doing jobs that nobody else will do, and you meaning White America wants to prosecute them! And alas stop blaming Obama for what stubborn racists obstructionist Tea Partier s who have done in there power to keep this country from going forward.

Posted by myvotecounts | Report as abusive

To misquote Justice Powell, you will never get beyond race until you stop taking it into account.

Posted by logicus | Report as abusive

“Obama is not black. He was raised by some nice elderly white grandparents in a very pretty state.
Posted by Chris_colorado ” Not so nice. Rabid Communists, as was their daughter.

Posted by BrianFH | Report as abusive

This author is a law professor? Really?

She refers to “this newfangled equal treatment of states theory.” She should know – or maybe does know but doesn’t want to say – that it is an extraordinarily well-established principle that a federal law has to apply equally to every state, absent exceptional circumstances. In other words, Congress clearly can’t just say, for example, “this law applies only to the state of New York.” Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act were notable exceptions precisely because there was, at the time, such widespread discrimination in the voting laws and practices of certain states and municipalities. The Supreme Court has now said, such an unusual law can’t selectively applied to states on the basis of 40 to 50 year old data.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive