Scant hope for fruitful talk after Voting Rights Act ruling

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act seems like an occasion for one of those “national conversations about race” that are regularly called for but never held.

If you think this time is different, you haven’t been watching the story of Paula Deen.

Now, my sympathy for Deen, the celebrity chef under fire for admitting to saying the “N-word” in the past, is infinitesimal. She became famous by caricaturing the South as the land of the absurdly buttery, sugary and deep-fried. Today she is infamous for living down to another of our region’s worst aspects.

But she’s not the first or last person — in the South or elsewhere — to utter a word intended to belittle or dehumanize a person or group of people. Nor are her worst critics likely to be innocent on this count.

To paraphrase young Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” the word Deen spoke is THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of offensive slurs. No doubts about that.

But like the F-word Ralphie muttered, the N-word Deen spoke is not the only slur one hears in America today. It may have no equal but it does have equivalents, as far as the intent to render someone sub-human. It beggars belief that Deen’s detractors have never said a single word — e.g., “trailer trash” — with the same ill intent.

The second thing giving me pause about Deen is the apparent lack of a limit for how a word spoken in anger or hate long ago can be used as evidence of continued anger or hatred today.

The question that got Deen in deep trouble was whether she had ever used the slur. Not recently or frequently; ever. Few Southerners above a certain age who grew up in a different era could truthfully answer “no.” For that matter, neither could many Americans below a certain age who hum along with rap music. That’s before we even broaden the question to lesser slurs.

That doesn’t excuse what they, or Deen, said in the past. But nor does it necessarily tell us what kind of people they are, or she is, today.

Perhaps Deen has not really “evolved,” to use a currently exculpatory buzzword. That is the claim in the lawsuit in which Deen was being questioned about the N-word.

But the prevailing storyline has been different: She admitted saying that word once; ergo, she remains an irredeemable racist now. That’s how this particular “national conversation about race” has gone.

I see little hope a conversation inspired by the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday will go any better.

Federal prohibitions on discriminatory election laws remain after the ruling. Judges can still block overtly discriminatory laws before they take effect. The federal government can still decide certain parts of the country should be subject to the “preclearance” provision of Section 5, which requires federal pre-approval of changes to election laws. The justices could have struck down preclearance altogether but didn’t.

What changed Tuesday is the court said it’s unconstitutional to continue subjecting some states, counties and cities to preclearance based on data from the mid-1960s.

In short, the court said Congress must determine if those areas have evolved, if their past sins still tell us anything about what they and their inhabitants are like today. This is hardly the same as toppling the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A real, court-inspired conversation about race would point the way to updated standards for subjecting states and local governments to preclearance. Either that, or acknowledgment that very few states (perhaps only Hawaii and West Virginia) would qualify if we used the same test with newer data — and acceptance that that’s a good thing, albeit one that bears continuous monitoring.

Are such acknowledgment and acceptance possible? I fear the Deen story suggests the more likely outcome is that anything short of declaring previously discriminatory states to be still discriminatory won’t satisfy the critics.

Eric Holder once said we’re “a nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race. Cowards or not, we certainly aren’t good at it.

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