Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging a major provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision, Section 5, holds that before making changes to voting procedures, jurisdictions in all or part of 16 states must convince the federal government that the changes won’t amount to “denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” Despite the law having been repeatedly upheld by Congress—with overwhelming support as recently as 2006—Shelby County, Alabama, argues that the law is outdated, unnecessary, and unfair.
After oral arguments and questioning made the position of the Court’s conservative Justices clear, it’s widely assumed that Section 5 will be struck down, in what Court-watcher Linda Greenhouse characterizes as an all but certain “evisceration” of the Voting Rights Act. For those seeking to understand the case, its place in the Roberts Court’s pattern of rulings on the “sordid business” of race, and how it’s happened that the Court now seems poised to give itself a power that should reside with Congress, Greenhouse’s reporting is a great place to start.
Here though, we’d like to consider a recent study of the Voting Rights Act that shows its effects to have been even broader than is often understood. The Act’s standing as a watershed moment for the extension of civil rights in this country is of course a given, but in a new book, economic historian Gavin Wright shows that the VRA was also extremely significant to the advancement of economic equality in the covered regions. In Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, Wright outlines the commonly overlooked connections between the civil rights movement and the struggle for economic justice, arguing that breakthroughs like the VRA were an economic boon to African Americans with no commensurate setback for southern whites.
A key contribution of Wright’s book is the simple reminder that, on the ground and in the moment, economic concerns were always part of the push for equal rights:
From the bus boycotts of the 1950s to the sit-ins of the early 1960s, demands for equal access to services were almost always coupled with demands for jobs providing those services. In December 1955 the Montgomery Improvement Association called for “employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections,” a demand that was actually quite radical for the time because of the quasi-legal powers bus drivers held. Flyers like the one [pictured below] from Warrenton, North Carolina, were circulated during public accommodations disputes throughout the region. The appeal for “equal opportunity for employment” and the complaint that stores “do not hire any Negroes in responsible jobs” are, if anything, more prominent than the demand for fountain service. In Birmingham, pickets wore sandwich boards reading “Don’t buy where you cannot be a salesman” and continued their pressure until each downtown department store hired at least one black clerk.
Wrights cites studies that have shown that, though just one step in a much larger struggle, the VRA made possible much of what came after:
and incorrectly—asserting that Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of African American registration in the nation. The contention is that the South should no longer be subjected to these unique violations of state sovereignty if these states can no longer be considered out of step with the rest of the nation.
Political scientist Joel Thompson systematically compared the forty North Carolina counties covered by the Act with another forty-county sample from the same state, matched as closely as possible according to various demographic and economic criteria. Not only did the Voting Rights Act counties have greater increases in black voter registration and elected officials, but they also experienced more rapid growth in black incomes and occupational status and attracted more revenue from both county and outside governmental sources. An earlier study compared Greene County, Alabama, where blacks gained control of county government between 1969 and 1972, with two other counties that were socioeconomically similar but remained in white control. Government employment, public and private investment, and black living standards all grew more rapidly in Greene than in the control counties.
The whole case, of course, is in keeping with the resurgence of efforts to impose obstacles on voters, a trend that is certainly not confined to the South. Alongside these new takes on poll taxes is the systematic gerrymandering of congressional districts, manipulations that allow lines to be redrawn such that demographically dominant groups can be concentrated and marginalized in their own districts. Supporters of the retention of Section 5 argue that voter registration alone isn’t a sufficient metric if this kind of redistricting can effectively limit the power of some populations’ votes.
Here, too, Wright’s book is instructive, highlighting the unseen economic benefits of black voting power:
With voting rights, black citizens have shared more fairly in public services, public-sector jobs, and municipal contracts. Beyond racial equity, voting rights ushered in an era of competitive two-party politics in southern states, channeling public energies toward growth-enhancing investments in schools, transportation, and recreational facilities. Although politics by its very nature is concerned with distributional issues, the benefits of regional growth have been shared by white as well as black southerners, and in this larger sense expanding the electorate was a win-win proposition like other components of the Civil Rights revolution.
If Section 5 is struck down, in what Justice Elena Kagan says would amount to granting the Court a “big new power,” it’s not difficult to imagine the ancillary economic benefits of a competitive two-party system as identified by Wright being threatened, too.