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OPINION

The Supreme Court took a hammer to voting rights, proving Douglass’s words still true

In celebrating the nation’s birth, it’s clearer than ever that independence is in the eye of the power holder.

A Black Voters Matter’s “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus, at the National Mall, in Washington, June 26. This year is the 60th anniversary of the launch of the original Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C. throughout the South to challenge segregation in busing and public facilities.
A Black Voters Matter’s “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus, at the National Mall, in Washington, June 26. This year is the 60th anniversary of the launch of the original Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C. throughout the South to challenge segregation in busing and public facilities.Alex Wong/Getty

It’s been 169 years since Frederick Douglass questioned what the Fourth of July is to the Black American. All week I’ve pondered a related question: If voting is a pillar of democracy and a fundamental right, how indeed should Black Americans feel about July Fourth this year?

In upholding Arizona’s voting restrictions, which unduly target people of color, the US Supreme Court Thursday affirmed that Douglass’s own answer remains true: It is “a day that reveals to (the Black American), more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

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That answer came in the form of a new, grave blow dealt to the federal Voting Rights Act, one that will make it difficult if not impossible to challenge discriminatory voting laws — even those that courts have found “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Juneteenth, which commemorates the fact that even emancipation from slavery was denied to thousands more than two years after it was due, may have been recognized as a federal holiday this year. But this weekend, in celebrating the nation’s birth, it’s clearer than ever that independence is in the eye of the power holder.

This comes after a year in which the coronavirus pandemic proved more deadly to Black bodies and more dangerous to disproportionately Black essential workers. It comes after more than a year of protests demanding that Black people stop being killed by police at three times the rate of white Americans. It comes after the Jan. 6 deadly attack by assailants — holding Confederate flags and proudly donning other white supremacist insignia — seized the US Capitol in an effort to stop the votes from the Blackest cities in the most contested election states from being counted.

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And now, in a 6-3 ruling that makes the claim of voter fraud — real or hypothetical — an almost insurmountable affirmative defense for restrictive voting laws, the court gave constitutional cover to the Big Lie, perpetuated by Donald Trump and his supporters to tilt the political playing field in favor of a shrinking Republican Party. Now, as GOP state lawmakers rush to enact hundreds of laws that restrict access to the polls, there is precious little those who seek to stop them can do about it.

It’s not as if we haven’t seen all this coming. Eight years ago the court’s conservative majority, based on the erroneous determination that racially discriminatory voting restrictions were a thing of the past, stripped the Justice Department of the ability to stop suppressive voting laws before they went into effect.

Thursday the court went even further, with another ideologically divided ruling, limiting the ability of federal authorities or others to sue to stop already-enacted restrictive voting rules.

For added measure, the court signaled the argument GOP lawmakers can make that will probably thwart any challenge: fear of voter fraud, real or imagined.

Justice Samuel Alito’s 6-3 majority opinion repeatedly underscored strong state interest in stopping fraud — even in the absence of any evidence of it, as was the case with the Arizona laws at issue. This, Alito said, “should go without saying.” Justice Elena Kagan, in dissent, parsed no words about the damage done to the 1965 law that was passed when equality was merely a “distant dream for African American citizens.”

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“What is tragic here is that the Court has [yet again] rewritten — in order to weaken — a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses,” Kagan wrote. “What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.’ ”

She reminded the court’s majority of how the Voting Rights Act encompassed the best of American ideals: the “ambitious” promise of and devotion to democracy for all, even in the face of those who try to deny that right.

Alito dismissed Kagan’s reminders about the history that led to the passage of that law, writing that it “does not tell us how to decide these cases.”

Despite Kagan’s blistering takedown of Alito’s reasoning, as Douglass said, “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” That irony will not be lost on me this holiday weekend when, as Douglass noted, “independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”


Kimberly Atkins Stohr can be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.