Voting Rights--and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections

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Overview

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of American civil rights legislation. Its passage marked the death knell of the Jim Crow South. But that was the beginning, not the end, of an important debate on race and representation in American democracy. When is the distribution of political power racially fair? Who counts as a representative of black and Hispanic interests? How we answer such questions shapes our politics and public policy in profound but often unrecognized ways. The actOs original aim was ...

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Overview

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of American civil rights legislation. Its passage marked the death knell of the Jim Crow South. But that was the beginning, not the end, of an important debate on race and representation in American democracy. When is the distribution of political power racially fair? Who counts as a representative of black and Hispanic interests? How we answer such questions shapes our politics and public policy in profound but often unrecognized ways. The actOs original aim was simple: Give African Americans the same political opportunity enjoyed by other citizens_the chance to vote, form political coalitions, and elect the candidates of their choice. But in the racist South, it soon became clear that access to the ballot would not, by itself, provide the political opportunity the statute promised. Most southern whites were unwilling to vote for black candidates, and southern states were ready to alter electoral systems to maintain white supremacy. In this provocative book, Abigail Thernstrom argues that southern resistance to black political power began a process by which the act was radically revised both for good and ill. Congress, the courts, and the Justice Department altered the statute to ensure the election of blacks and Hispanics to legislative bodies ranging from school boards and county councils to the U.S. Congress. Proportional racial representation_equality of results rather than mere equal opportunity_became the revised aim of the act. Blacks came to be treated as politically different_entitled to inequality in the form of a unique political privilege. Majority-minority districts that reserved seats for blacks and Hispanics succeeded in integrating southern politics. By now, however, those districts may perversely limit the potential power of black officeholders. OMax-blackO districts typically elect candidates to the left of most voters; those officeholders rarely win in majority-white settings. Such race-conscious districting discourages the development of centrist, Opost-racialO candidates like Barack Obama (who was defeated when he stood for Congress in one such district). The Voting Rights Act has become a period piece that today serves to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics_precisely the opposite of what its framers intended. A radically revised law would better serve the political interests of all Americans_minority and white voters alike.

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What People Are Saying

John McWhorter
"It has become a shibboleth of moral fiber in America to support "upholding the Voting Rights Act" as if 45 years after 1965, there are still grimy bigots waiting to bar blacks from the voting booth as soon as the Feds turn their backs. Abigail Thernstrom makes a clean argument that the Voting Rights Act is today a brake on the progress that the civil rights movement is supposed to be about."--(John McWhorter, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute)
Michael Barone
"No one is better suited to evaluate the Voting Rights Act than Abigail Thernstrom. She shows how the act successfully and rapidly eliminated barriers to voting in the 1960s--and how it has become a barrier to racial harmony today."--(Michael Barone, resident fellow, American Enterprise Institute, and coauthor, co-author, The Almanac of American Politics)
Shelby Steele
"Abigail Thernstrom is simply the best writer and thinker we have on voting rights in America. Voting Rights-and Wrongs, the culmination of decades of research and thinking, is the watershed book that will reframe our thinking on minorities and the vote. This book is grounded in an irony: that race-specific voting policies designed to achieve racial equality in fact perpetuate racial inequality. And now fate has conspired to reinforce Thernstrom's thesis. Barack Obama's election makes it clear that minorities can now win in a political open market. This is the book we need to understand voting rights in post-Obama America."--(Shelby Steele, Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution)
Ward Connerly
"Abby Thernstrom has studied issues relating to race throughout her illustrious and academically productive career. America in Black and White, co-authored by her husband Stephan Thernstrom, is the gold standard for those who want to trace racial progress in America. Voting Rights-and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections will stand honorably alongside America in Black and White as an invaluable contribution to how Americans evolve in their thinking about race. With the election of Barack Obama and reconsideration of the Voting Rights Act, this new work of scholarly excellence could not come at a better time."--(Ward Connerly, president, American Civil Rights Institute)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780844742694
  • Publisher: Aei Press
  • Publication date: 6/16/2009
  • Pages: 250
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, vice-chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the board of advisers of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, vice-chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the board of advisers of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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Foreword

From Foreword by Juan Williams:

Abigail Thernstrom is on a brave mission to end the silence that allows politics to distort the Voting Rights Act. In 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, its authors aimed to get the government to enforce the racial integration of voter registration, voting, and vote counting. Integration was also the goal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

At no point in American history did black leaders endorse separatism that would have black politicians elected to Congress from a seat that was labeled "blacks only" and then consigned to some racially-exclusive caucus that remained on the edge of deal makings and deliberations at the heart of the government.

The animating idea behind the Voting Rights Act was racial integration. The law led to tremendous growth in black political participation, and doors began opening to black people. New opportunities led to the historic expansion of an educated black middle class in America.

But, over time, distortions also appeared in the law. To some the measure of success of the Voting Rights Act was not protecting the right to vote, but rather the number of black politicians who won election. That thinking took the law far away from its roots as an instrument that served racial equality by ensuring black people could vote and run for office.

In this book Abigail Thernstrom makes the case that the Voting Rights Act was never intended to be measured for success on the basis of how many black or Latino politicians should be in Congress. Specifically, she contends, section 5 was never intended to be used to start an endless debate about voter dilution or discriminatory voter impact.

The reality of President Obama is a powerful counter to paranoid racial politics that invite some to distort the Voting Rights Act by arguing it is necessary to use insidious racial groupings to advance racially diverse political representation in the United States.

Abigail Thernstrom is at the cutting edge of the new possibilities of cross-racial unity with the arguments she presents in this book. Her goal, it seems to me, is protecting honest, nonracial competition of political ideas and leadership in service to America's democratic ideals.
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