The Supreme Court ruling that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act depended on a great deal of mendacity in its text, but also its context. This is about the latter.
July 15, 2013

Part 9 of the series, "The Structure of Lies in Conservative Jurisprudence".

    Note: In light of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, I'm holding back the planned next diary in the series, dealing with the incoherence and lawlessness of Antonin Scalia's jurisprudence. I'm jumping ahead to a topic I intended to deal with later--the continuity of the white supremacist legal and political order, even with a black-skinned man in the White House.'

A tweet from The Nation put it perfectly:

America's problem has never been racism. It's always been white supremacy. Calling it racism not only lets white supremacy off the hook--it makes it much harder to accurately see. The tweet above cuts through all that in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman. What's stayed the same about white supremacy is white supremacy. What's changed is the discourse around race. But an innocent black teenager is still dead. And his murderer was still just acquitted, and given back his murder weapon to use again.

Even though the president himself is black, the fundamental logic of white supremacy is still in place, and very few of us have any coherent way to make sense of how this can be so--much less how it relates to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. But there is a way to make sense of it all, which I'd like to share in this diary.

My theoretical understanding of white supremacy in America today has two main foundations. The first is social dominance theory, the theory of group dominance developed by Felicia Pratto and James Sidanius in the 1990s, and presented in their 2001 book, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Social dominance theory (SDT) is completely general in its scope. It explains the maintenance of group dominance by men over women, elders over youth and arbitrarily defined socially dominant groups over arbitrarily defined socially subordinate groups—groups defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion and cultural identity more generally. Individual attitudes—characterized by the construct of “social dominance orientation”—played a crucial role in the development of SDT, but the theory uses them to explain a larger over-all dynamic captured by the following diagram:


The realm in the middle of the diagram—that of "legitimating myths"—is particular important for this discussion. That's where the second source of my theoretical understanding fits in—and it's as specific as SDT is general. It's the framework of “colorblind racism” developed by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and explained in his book, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. SDT provides a universal model, with plenty of room for variations—as noted above, the arbitrarily defined groups can fall into many different categories. But there's another sort of variation build into the model as well, and that comes from the role that's played by the legitimating myths, which come in two different forms: those that enhance hierarchy and those that attenuate it. Colorblind racism fits perfectly into the universal framework of SDT as an explanation of how America's hierarchy-enhancing legitimating myths (HE-LMs) have been rewritten to seemingly accept the equality goals of the Civil Rights Movement without actually doing so. It pretends to be hierarchy-attenuating, since it's "colorblind", but it's actually hierarchy-enhancing, since it's racism. It's how white supremacy reinvents itself, and keeps on doing what it's always done.

I wrote about both these perspectives—plus some other stuff—in an Open Left diary back in late February 2009, "A Three-Ring Circus On Race This Week", where you can find a more extensive discussion of these topics. Here, however, I want to direct them toward understanding the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Bonilla identifies “four central frames” at the core of color-blind racism, with the explanation that "The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information." Simply by virtue of being mutually-supportive parts of a larger whole, they all played a role in the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, but one was much more obviously central than the others. These four frames of colorblind racism are:

  • Abstract liberalism: The frame of abstract liberalism involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (eg "equal opportunity", the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (eg, choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters. Abstraction allows these ideals to be invoked when convenient (say when objecting to affirmative action) and to be ignored when they're not (when unequal school funding makes equal opportunity impossible, for example).
  • Naturalisation: The frame of naturalisation allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences. It's "just the way things are".
  • Cultural Racism: The frame of cultural racism gives rise culturally based arguments such as "Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education" or "blacks have too many babies", which it then uses to explain the standing of minorities in society.
  • Minimisation of Racism. The "minimisation of racism" frame suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances ("It's better now than in the past" or "There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there"). It remembers the past with a highly selective intent, to excuse the evil that remains.

The last frame, minimization, was obviously the key for gutting the Voting Rights Act. Roberts' entire rationale centered around the claim that things had gotten dramatically better--hey, Selma has a black mayor! And since things had gotten better, what was constitutional in 1965, and even in 1982 (when Roberts first tried to kill the VRA as a young Reagan Administration lawyer) is now unconstitutional, because PROGRESS!

A number of commentators have pointed out how there's no explanation of why VRA Section 4 is unconstitutional. There's nothing specific in the Constitution that Roberts can point to, the best he can offer is the preposterous invented principle of "equal sovereignty" that if taken seriously would cripple virtually all federal legislation, since national laws inevitable impact different states differently. Colorblind racism helps to explain what's going on here: minimization is such a crucial component of white supremacy in its current incarnation that it over-rides any need for outside justification.

Scott Lemieux recently pointed out that "there is some precedent that might lend greater support to Roberts’s position, even if he chose not to cite it for some reason. Indeed, a widely read opinion by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States assumes that the citizens of states must be treated equally by acts of Congress."

He goes on to quote:

But, as we have before said, [Wisconsin territory] was acquired by the General Government as the representative and trustee of the people of the United States, and it must therefore be held in that character for their common and equal benefit, for it was the people of the several States, acting through their agent and representative, the Federal Government, who in fact acquired the Territory in question, and the Government holds it for their common use until it shall be associated with the other States as a member of the Union.

The opinion, of course, is Dred Scott. But the connection goes deeper than Lemieux probably realizes. Chief Justice Roger Taney famously went on to say that the drafters of the Constitution had viewed blacks as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." There was nothing in the Constitution to support this assertion. It was, rather, a central pillar of white supremacist ideology at the time. as such, it simply had to be true. The system of slavery, under attack, required that slaves be regarded as property and nothing more. Their ambiguous nature, which the Constitution clearly did recognize (3/5ths of a person, remember?), was a direct threat to slavery at the time, and had to be rejected out of hand.

This is the deeper parallel between Roberts striking down the Voting Rights Act and Taney declaring Dred Scott an unperson. Ideological necessity over-rides all else. In that respect, white supremacy remains entirely unchanged, regardless of the fact that the form the ideology takes has been dramatically transformed over time.

That tweet from The Nation got right to the heart of the white supremacy involved in both the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer. It highlighted what remains constant at the core of white supremacy, even as the form adopts itself to the changes that it can no longer prevent.

In a similar fashion, what remains constant in the constitutional realm is that the requirements of white supremacy will be read into the Constitution, and that nothing actually written in the constitution will be recognized as protecting the rights of blacks.


Much of the above might seem to be far removed from everyday life. But there is a strong relationship to how people see the world they live in. So I'd like to close with a reflection on the commonplace racial perceptions that provide a context for all of the above. In 2011, researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School reported that whites now think that they are more discriminated against than blacks. [Press release. Study.] They conducted a nationwide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites, asking each participant to indicate the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were targets of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s, using a scale of 1 (“not at all”) to 10 ("very much)."

The results were most illuminating: close agreement on the distant past, and wide divergence on the present. More specifically: Beginning in the 1950s, blacks rated anti-black bias at almost 10, while whites rated it at just over 9, with ratings of anti-white bias almost a mirror image. But perceptions diverged increasingly with each passing decade, until finally whites rated anti-white bias in the 2000s at more than 4.5, compared to anti-back bias more than a full point lower. Blacks, in contrast, rated anti-black bias at 6, anti-white bias at just under 2.

“Our results revealed that Whites see racism in zero-sum terms,” the researchers wrote. “For White respondents, ratings of bias against Whites and Blacks were negatively and significantly correlated for each decade.”

The zero-sum view of rights is yet another core aspect of white supremacist thought. Liberationists have always held that justice for one is justice for all. This is not just some wild-eyed Kenyan anti-colonial philosophy. It can be found in the most canonical John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself.... Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

Now that's a traditional value I can get behind. How about you?

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