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Conservatives invoke Obama in Voting Rights Act challenge

They say his election as president is the sign of a colorblind society that doesn't need safeguards for minorities. Civil rights advocates disagree, pointing to other voting patterns.

March 18, 2009|Peter Wallsten and David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The election of Barack Obama as president has been hailed as a crowning achievement of America's civil rights movement, the triumph of a black candidate in a nation with a history of slavery and segregation.

But in a twist, Obama's success has emerged as a central argument from conservatives who say his victory proves that some of the nation's most protective civil rights laws can be erased from the books.

Conservative legal foundations and the Republican governor of Georgia, challenging key parts of the Voting Rights Act, filed briefs in the Supreme Court this month pointing to racial progress and a high black turnout in the fall election. They said Obama's victory heralded the emergence of a colorblind society in which special legal safeguards for minorities are no longer required.

"The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African American president is far different than when [the Voting Rights Act] was first enacted in 1965," argued Texas lawyer Gregory S. Coleman, whose client, a utility board in Austin, is challenging parts of the law.

"The question now is, at what point do we as a society wipe the slate clean and accept that we are equals with equal rights, equal treatment and equal expectations, and special treatment shouldn't be provided to anyone?" asked Shannon Goessling, director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation in Atlanta, which has fought affirmative action and other race preferences.

The Supreme Court sounded a similar note last week in limiting the reach of the Voting Rights Act. The law's goal is "to hasten the waning of racism in American politics," not "to entrench racial differences," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

That decision, in a North Carolina case, said that states and municipalities need not consider race when drawing voting districts, except in areas where blacks or Latinos form a majority.

The Texas case to be heard next month will decide whether certain states and localities, mostly in the South, must continue to obtain Justice Department approval before changing voting districts, polling locations or other election procedures. The requirement is viewed as something of a badge of dishonor in the South.

By invoking Obama, conservatives are in effect asking the justices to issue not only a legal decree about the fate of one law, but also to weigh in on emotionally charged questions about American society: Does the election of a black president mean that racism is no longer a factor in American politics? And are civil rights laws outdated in the age of Obama?

Conservatives said they planned to apply the Obama argument in the court of public opinion as well. It could play a role, for example, in potential ballot initiatives in 2010 in Arizona and Missouri seeking to roll back affirmative action laws.

"We will say, 'How do you account for the election of Barack Obama?' " said Ward Connerly, a leading anti-affirmative-action activist. "If we can't get rid of these laws now with Obama, I don't know what yardstick we're going to use."

Civil rights advocates bristle at the assertion that Obama's victory signals it is time to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and other laws.

"It's an overly simplistic argument that doesn't reflect the facts," said Jon M. Greenbaum of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

He and others pointed to state-by-state voting data from 2008, presented to the Supreme Court, showing persistent racial polarization in the Deep South and elsewhere. In Alabama and Mississippi, for example, Obama won only about 1/10th of the white vote -- less than his party's white nominee in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry, who waged a far weaker campaign than Obama. Kerry won 19% of the white vote in Alabama and 14% in Mississippi.

The gap was even bigger in Louisiana, where Obama won 14% of the white vote, down from Kerry's 24%.

"How can [conservatives] make this case, when the effete Massachusetts liberal with a rich foreign wife who loves windsurfing and spandex got more white votes in Mississippi -- in much less negative economic circumstances -- than a highly popular candidate who was as hot as can be?" asked David Bositis, an expert on racial voting patterns at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Overall, Obama won just one in four white votes in the areas covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is the provision being challenged in the Texas case, while he took nearly half of the white vote nationally.

Kennedy, the swing vote in last week's 5-4 ruling on voting districts, appeared to reject the symbolism of Obama's victory. "Some commentators suggest that racially polarized voting is waning -- as evidenced by, for example, the election of minority candidates where a majority of voters are white," he wrote.

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