Today in Magical Beliefs about Racism

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

I mentioned in my previous post that the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on the Voting Rights Act this week. At issue is Section 5 of the law, which requires states and localities with histories of voter disenfranchisement to pre-approve any changes that effect voting with the federal government. The provision effects nine states—mostly in the South—and most areas that submit for pre-clearance are approved. It takes serious problems for the Justice Department to put changes on hold.

Despite the wide flexibility of Section 5—and the extent to which some areas are more likely to violate voting rights than others—conservatives have attacked this provision as "onerous," "unfair," and tantamount to reverse discrimination. Conservative members of the Court also followed this line of thinking. Justice Antonin Scalia described the provision as a "perpetuation of racial entitlement"—as if it's unreasonable to apply extra scrutiny to states that subjugated or disenfranchised their black populations for more than 180 years—and Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether it's "the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?"

Two things. First, I remain baffled by the view that racial discrimination—much less inequality—has dissolved in the nearly 50 years since Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Yes, we've largely overcome overt discrimination, but more subtle forms still exist. Beyond that, it's important to note—as Ed Kilgore does at the Washington Monthly—that Jim Crow is still within living memory for millions of Americans. Indeed, the baby boomers—including the large majority of our lawmakers—were children when Emmett Till was murdered, and teenagers when George Wallace promised to defend segregation in perpetuity.

As to Justice Roberts' question? The answer is a qualified yes. Here is the conclusion of a 2005 study from political scientists Nicholas A. Valentino and David O. Sears:

General Social Survey and National Election Studies data from the 1970s to the present indicate that whites residing in the old Confederacy continue to display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites. Racial conservatism has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South, while its impact has remained constant elsewhere. This stronger association between racial antagonism and partisanship in the South compared to other regions cannot be explained by regional differences in nonracial ideology or nonracial policy preferences, or by the effects of those variables on partisanship. [Emphasis added]

When it comes to voting, at least, Southern whites are more racist than their counterparts outside the South. Though, it's also worth noting this fact, highlighted in a recent column from Thomas Edsall: The percentage of voters with anti-black attitudes rose from 47.6 percent in 2008 to 50.9 percent in 2012.

Conservatives should feel free to disagree with the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But let's not pretend racism is some specter of the past. It isn't.