Just An Observation: Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, and the Death of the Voting Rights Act


“[T]he Court’s opinion can hardly be described as an exemplar of restrained and moderate decision making, quite the opposite. Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA… The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed. … With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.” –Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The last couple of weeks has been significant regarding in race relations in this country. The Trayvon Martin trial verdict was delivered, Paula Deen continues to do damage control over accusations of racism, and the United States Supreme Court struck down a key part of one of the most significant Civil Rights Bills in this country’s history.

Last weekend in Sanford, Florida, the George Zimmerman verdict was rendered. Overzealous neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin over a year ago, and was found not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter. The following is an excerpt from the New York Times writer Charles Blow (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/opinion/the-whole-system-failed.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0):

“In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.

“This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.

The system began to fail Martin long before that night.

The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.

The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.

The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.

The system failed him when the bullet ripped through his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.

The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.”

My heart still aches for the Martin family. It is so disheartening knowing that in 2013, the prospects of a young African-American male receiving justice in the judicial system is so bleak. Martin, a teenager, was racially profiled and pursued because he was an African-American male walking in a place Zimmerman thought he had no business, not because of anything he was doing but only because he was African-American. The defense’s argument of self-defense was highly flawed because the same could be said of Martin, who was walking armed with nothing but skittles and an ice tea when Zimmerman defied orders to not follow Martin and confronted him with an armed gun. It seems to me like Zimmerman was the only one looking for trouble that night. The verdict has sparked protest across the country, lets hope that meaningful social change comes from this tragedy so that Trayvon’s death will not be in vain.

The Paula Deen controversy is its own mess. Deen, who is popular for her tasty recipes and restaurants, is an alleged racist.  A leaked deposition from in a discrimination case filed against Deen contends that Deen used racial slurs and jokes about women, Jews, and African-Americans. Check out this Daily Beast article on the 8 most shocking details from the despositions (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/19/paula-deen-uses-the-n-word-7-shocking-details-from-her-deposition.html):

1. She refused to have her empire destroyed by “a piece of pussy.” (Also, she uses that word!)

Former employee Lisa Jackson said that she was hired to replace a general manager at the restaurant Uncle Bubba’s who was fired for having sexual relationships with underage servers. While demanding the manager be fired, Jackson says that Deen told her brother, “If you think I have worked this hard to lose everything because of a piece of pussy, you better think again.” Asked in her deposition whether she actually said it, Deen responded with an abso-friggin-lutely: “I said that day and I would say it again today if it applied.” She then repeated the sentence, making not being in that room a regret we’ll all have to live with for the rest of our lives.

2. She really wanted to stage that Southern plantation-style wedding. But she didn’t because the media wouldn’t understand.

Jackson said she was put in charge of arrangements for Bubba’s wedding, which Deen apparently said she wanted to have a “true Southern plantation-style theme.” What, pray tell, does that mean? “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n—-rs to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, and black bow-ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around,” Deen reportedly elaborated. Alas, the wedding Deen envisioned never came to be. “We can’t do that because the media would be on me about that,” she reportedly told Jackson. In her testimony, Deen said that she actually was referencing the “beautiful white jackets with a black bow-tie” she saw the wait staff of “middle-aged black men” wearing at a restaurant she visited “in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere.”

3. She did not use the N-word to describe the waiters.

Deen objected to the accusation that she used the N-word to describe the waiters. Asked whether there was any possibility that she may have slipped and use the word, she said, “No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.” Still, when asked why nicely dressed black men would be a part of a “Southern plantation wedding,” she said it reminded her of southern America “before the Civil War.” After being reminded that black men serving people in the South before the Civil War were slaves, she agreed, but said she “did not mean anything derogatory” by her comments.

4. She doesn’t think that watching porn or being racist at work makes you a bad boss.

In her deposition, Deen was asked whether the fact that her brother admitted to watching pornography and using the N-word at their restaurant caused her to have concerns about him running their business. She responded, “just because he’s got a sense of humor does not make him a bad person or incapable of running a business.” Questioned as to whether jokes of a sexual or racist nature are in poor taste at a place of work, she responded, “We have all told off-color jokes … Every man I’ve ever come in contact with has one.”

5. But she does use the N-word!

Deen admitted to using the N-word in her life, after a “black man” put a gun to her head at a bank where she was working. She said she used it because she “didn’t feel real favorable towards him.” She also said she’s sure she’s used the word since, “but it’s been a very long time” and guessed that she probably used it when quoting “a conversation between blacks.”

6. She doesn’t think the N-word is bad, as long as it’s used in a joke.

Deen said that she and her husband taught her children not to use the N-word in a mean way. Asked when exactly that word be used in a not-mean way, she said either when repeating what you may hear “black people” say in the kitchen or when used in a joke.

7. She sees nothing wrong with watching a little porn at work.

A major point in the suit is that Deen’s brother, Bubba, was accused of looking at pornography at work and showing it to employees. Asked whether she has any problem with such practices, Deen said, “If somebody sent him something and he pulled it up and looked at it, no, I would not persecute him for that.”

8. Her bathroom sounds amazing.

Deen’s bathroom has a sofa and two chairs in it. She calls it a “bathroom/den combination.” That’s not particularly salacious. But it’s definitely intriguing.

Interesting enough Deen supporters argue that because of Southern culture she should be forgiven, that she can’t help how she was raised. Someone obviously should have told the U.S. Supreme Court that because today they gutted an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguing that because of strides in minority voting due in part to the Voting Rights Act, it was no longer permissible to review changes in voting laws in districts, states, etc. with a history of racial discrimination.

The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision three weeks ago gutting a centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has long been used to preemptively snuff out discriminatory voting laws.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, overturns Section 4 of the law, declaring unconstitutional the formula used to identify which state and local governments with a history of racial discrimination are required to pre-clear any changes to their voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court.

“Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional; its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to pre-clearance,” Roberts wrote.

The ruling is a major blow to civil rights advocates as it is widely believed that Congress, which currently uses data from as far back as the 1970s to determine that formula, will not be able to pass a new formula into law. As a result, the ruling has the practical effect of neutering the pre-clearance requirement.

The decision frees up those jurisdictions to change their voting laws without supervision. But the federal government still has the power to target a voting law in court, after it is passed, if it is suspected of having a discriminatory effect on a particular racial group (Sahil Kapur).

The Voting Rights Act has protected minorities’ right to vote for over 50 years, this ruling will have a significant impact on voting laws throughout the country; especially in the South, a place where Chief Justice John Roberts declared “has changed”. It is obvious from the courts’s ruling, and the Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin controversies that the more things “change” the more they stay the same.  


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