Why the Left Needs Racism–III

James Taranto, Wall Street Journal, August 27, 213

Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson went to the movies last week and wrote a peculiar column about the experience. She went to see “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (which hereinafter we’ll abbreviate “The Butler”), a historical drama that follows its central character, Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) through his career as a White House servant, which begins in 1957 and lasts a third of a century.

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We should note that this is not a documentary or even a biopic (although it was inspired by an actual long-serving White House butler, Eugene Allen) but a fictional work, sort of a left-liberal “Forrest Gump.” Historians of the Reagan presidency told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this month that the script is mendacious in its portrayal of the 40th president as racially insensitive. That said, we know of no reason to think that the scenes of Jim Crow brutality Carlson found so moving are anything other than true-to-life.

Carlson, however, deploys the film in a dazzlingly illogical argument. “I wish Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his Supreme Court colleagues would see [‘The Butler’], too,” she writes. “Maybe it will help them understand how wrong they got it when they recently decided that we are so far past Jim Crow that we can dispense with a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”

Her argument is an appeal to emotion in the service of a question-begging non sequitur. If the justices “see for themselves how virulent the oppression was 50 years ago,” she avers, they would understand “why we still need rules to redress it.”

Even the appeal to emotion is misplaced in the case of one of the justices. Half a century ago Clarence Thomas was a black teenager in Georgia. He doesn’t need Hollywood actors to show him the oppressiveness of Jim Crow, and he certainly doesn’t need a person of pallor like Carlson to lecture him about it.

At any rate, nobody disputes that Jim Crow was brutal or that the Voting Rights Act, including the section the Supreme Court struck down, was necessary and justified in 1965. It does not follow, however, that it is either necessary or constitutional today. Here is the entirety of Carlson’s argument that it is:

In 2013 alone, more than 80 measures to restrict voting rights–less blatantly racist than literacy tests but almost as pernicious–were introduced in 31 states. They are put forth as remedies, only no problem exists: The incidence of actual voter fraud hovers near zero. Kansas, where new rules are particularly harsh, has had more documented cases of UFO sightings than of voter fraud.

Carlson’s conclusion, then, rests on all of the following highly dubious premises: that she accurately characterizes the purpose of the measures to which she refers as being “to restrict voting rights,” that those measures are “almost as pernicious” as impossible-to-pass literacy tests that were administered only to blacks, that voter fraud is either nonexistent or so rare as to be a trivial concern, and that space aliens have flown over Kansas.

Furthermore, she makes plain that she lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the Voting Rights Act and the court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder . The ruling has no effect on Section 2 of the act, which allows courts to enjoin voting rules that can be shown to be discriminatory. It had the effect of rendering inoperative Section 5, which forbade certain states and local jurisdictions from changing their voting rules, whether discriminatory or not, without federal approval.

But Section 5 is still good law. The court struck down Section 4, which set the parameters for determining which jurisdictions were covered by Section 5. The problem was that Section 4 relied on outdated criteria: past practices and voter-registration and -turnout data that had not been updated in more than four decades.

The clearest indication of Carlson’s ignorance in the matter is her citation of Kansas as an example. The Sunflower State was not a covered jurisdiction under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore is unaffected by the ruling in Shelby County. If, as Carlson claims, Kansas is Ground Zero in an effort to disfranchise blacks–an enormous “if,” to be sure–that is further evidence that Section 4 was obsolete, not that it wasn’t.

But when you think it through, Carlson’s whole appeal to emotion actually cuts against her argument. No doubt the Jim Crow scenes in “The Butler” are shocking. But in 2013, that is the shock of the unfamiliar. If blacks were still oppressed in the South, you wouldn’t need to go to the theater to see it. You could watch it in high-definition in your living room, on the evening or cable news.

The Carlson piece got us to thinking about why race plays such a central role in the worldview of today’s liberal left, and why those on the left seem to suffer from a compulsion to exaggerate wildly the continuing prevalence of racism. In the first two columns in this series, we argued that it serves a political purpose, sustaining black loyalty to the Democratic Party, and a psychological purpose, allowing white liberals to assert their moral supremacy over other whites. (Since we wrote the latter column, it has also occurred to us that the idea of “white privilege” seems to be a guilty pleasure for some whites.)

Carlson’s argument suggests a third purpose, an ideological one.

It has now been 49 years since Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and 48 since the Voting Rights Act. If racism really remained as prevalent as liberals claim, one could argue that would represent a failure of liberal governance. Contrariwise, if indeed racism has largely abated, as this columnist asserts, that would seem to be a vindication for liberal governance.

But actually the liberal position is not inconsistent. Carlson does not deny the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act; rather, unfamiliar with its actual workings, she takes it as an article of faith that without it, even in 2013, blacks would be forbidden from voting.

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There’s no doubt that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were successful. Their effects were quick and dramatic, exemplified by the reversal within a decade of black migration patterns, which we noted yesterday.

But those on the left, by denying or downplaying the enormous cultural changes that were already well under way by the 1960s, overstate the relative importance of the 1960s civil-rights legislation. The premise is wrong, but the logic is sound: If the enactment of federal laws alone was enough to end Jim Crow, then without those laws, Jim Crow would return.

Thus the exaggeration of racism helps sustain an illusion of the federal government’s efficacy. {snip}

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