November 14, 2007

The Civil Rights Story of the Fall

This fall, a lot of attention has found its way to Jena, Louisiana, where civil rights activists and advocates have descended to condemn a grim reminder of the progress to be made in American race relations. The Jena story exposed the stubborn presence of private racism and disproportionate law enforcement by local officials. That story, however, overshadowed another troubling civil rights story that suggests that the problems in Jena continue to exist even at the upper echelons of the federal government.

John Tanner is the head of the voting rights section in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. This job, head of a section created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was specifically designed to protect the voting rights of African American citizens who were being denied registration. As part of his job, Tanner reviews the conclusions of his subordinates regarding questions including whether voter ID requirements discriminate against African American voters. When his subordinates recommended that a particular Georgia voter ID law did so discriminate, Tanner overruled them. Just for the record, the Georgia law has been ruled unconstitutional twice by a federal judge who likened it to a poll tax – a method, it is worth noting, that the Voting Rights Act was specifically enacted to eliminate. In October, we got a glimpse of exactly what Tanner was thinking when making that decision.

In a attempt to make the point that the voter ID law actually discriminated against elderly, and not African American voters (as though that is a testament to the goodness of the law), Tanner explained that “our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do.” Inserting his foot further, he said, “They die first.” The argument, then, is that the law does discriminate against the elderly; the elderly are more likely to be white; and therefore, the law does not discriminate against African Americans. Bulletproof logic.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether it is factually accurate to say that black Americans on average die earlier than white Americans – the truth of that statement is irrelevant to what makes Tanner’s comments so reprehensible. Assuming that it is true, it is worrisome that Mr. Tanner found this fact to be an acceptable response to counter the suggestion that voter ID requirements disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. It is a short step away from advocating early death for African Americans in order to ensure that the voter ID requirement will not discriminate against them.

Now, Tanner certainly is not advocating for this, but he is using a racial disparity in life expectancy and health outcomes as justification for his position, and thus, implicitly arguing that such a racial disparity is acceptable. In a country in which all are created equal and where every citizen is entitled to equal protection, a racial disparity in life expectancy is not acceptable and should not be acceptable to any American.

The only way such a disparate outcome would be acceptable is if one disregards the “all men are created equal” ideal upon which our society supposedly rests. If, for instance, African Americans are not equal to whites, than there really is no problem – African Americans die first because they are inferior. Isn’t this what Tanner is really suggesting when he cited the fact in his answer? And if so, isn’t it a problem that the head of the agency charged with protecting voter rights and making determinations about whether policies like voter ID laws are discriminatory even appears to think this way?

As Representative Artur Davis of Alabama scolded Tanner in a hearing that was unfortunately a distraction from the important and real debate about the wisdom, necessity, and constitutionality of voter ID laws, “If you are basing your conclusions on stereotypes rather than facts, then it suggests to some of us that someone else can do this job better than you can.”

Today, John Tanner remains the head of the voting rights section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. What does that say about the progress of race relations in this country?