“Our country has changed,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the June Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election laws.
Roberts was right. The civil-rights legislation not only removed some barriers to voting that minority groups in those states faced in 1965, it also boosted the number of minority candidates for elected office there as well. But that racial progress, according to a new study, is now threatened because the landmark law is gone.
Between 1981 and 2006, the city councils that made the biggest gains in black representation were located in the nine states covered by Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The number of cities in the designated states with at least one black city-council member rose by 82 percent, from 552 to 1,004 cities, according to a study to be published in The Journal of Politics this month. The number of cities not covered by the legislation that had at least one African-American city-council member increased just 3.3 percent, from 732 to 756 cities.
This summer’s Supreme Court decision, the authors write, could harm black participation and representation in the mostly Southern states once covered by the Voting Rights Act. It may even, over time, lead to a reversal of a two-decade trend.
“It is important to understand the consequences of the discriminatory practices of the pre-civil-rights era,” said study coauthor Melissa Marschall, a political science professor at Rice. “Blacks not only encountered a number of vote-dilution practices (including barriers to registration) and outright voter intimidation, but they also faced significant economic barriers that limited their socioeconomic advancement. The VRA was designed to dismantle obstacles that discouraged black political participation.”
The study used data collected by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the International City County Manager Association.