The Supreme Court sees discrimination against dark-skinned citizens at America’s polling places as a relic of the past. Yet racism is a beast that still breathes. If the highest court of the United States acts as if all Americans were equal, it is misconstruing reality. Equality must first be established.
Fifty years ago the police in Birmingham, Alabama broke up a peaceful demonstration of black citizens by unleashing aggressive dogs on the crowd. The scenes have been immortalized in a Birmingham city park with statues, the animals with their bared teeth and people looking for cover.
In its decision, the Supreme Court is now acting like a museum director: It sees the discrimination, victimization and intimidation of dark-skinned citizens at America’s polling places as a relic of the past, declares this public racism to be a bronze exhibition piece that is cold and ossified. It expresses itself more and more skeptical of affirmative action, the targeted favoritism of minorities that, for example, makes better access to colleges and universities possible.
But racism in America is a beast that is still breathing. It has become tamed, but it lives; it is no longer as wild as it once was, but it is more cunning. More than half of Americans today still admit to thinking and speaking derogatively about blacks, and almost all blacks can tell how much they have felt this all their lives.
The government and its servants, of course, do not act as hostilely and crudely as the police in Birmingham did at one time. Discrimination can have many faces today, even hypocritical. On the street, it is police controls that regularly affect more blacks than whites. At the polls, voters in some districts have to stand in line for hours or prove their identity with considerable effort that is too much to expect of simple social classes. That, too, mostly affects blacks harder than whites.
In southern states, the responsible parties for such chicaneries are often white Republicans. They don’t have to be openly racist; some just want to deter a group of voters that typically votes for the Democrats. The result is, of course, the same: It is unconstitutional and places black citizens at a disadvantage. Discrimination today often comes from it — they protest that they are colorblind, but make life difficult for the social classes which an above-average percentage of blacks belong to: the poor, the less educated.
Barack Obama, the first black president, usually remains silent about this reality. When he speaks, he admonishes his “brothers” for being satisfied with average achievements or leaving their families. It is part of the truth, too, that blacks have a harder time getting to the top — because of their economic situation and because of the prejudices that they face.
Anyone who professes equality has two possibilities. The first is that he treats everyone the same; that is what the Supreme Court does. It not only treats gays like heterosexuals, but also the South like the North, the blacks like the whites; it demands, for example, as much as possible, a race-neutral access to universities.
The second possibility consists of first establishing equality at all by, for example, acknowledging that election chicaneries against dark-skinned, poorer Americans continue in many places and that it is much more difficult for a black child in America than a white child to get to a college or university.
It is unfortunately not to be anticipated that legislatures in Washington and the southern states will campaign for the second possibility. They are all ruled by Republicans that feel demographically and culturally threatened by blacks, Latinos and Asians. Their resentment against people with a different skin color is likely to remain alive for a long time.