The name of Ike Brown may never feature in any histories of the American civil rights movement. But Brown, a Mississippi Democratic Party bigwig who has become the first black election official punished for discriminating against whites under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, merits a brief salute for moving the country past another racial milestone.
U.S. District Judge Tom Lee ruled in June that Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Brown and fellow Democrats "have engaged in racially motivated manipulation of the electoral process in Noxubee County to the detriment of white voters." This week, Lee ordered Brown and the committee to stay out of electoral politics (except for voting) until 2011, and he appointed a former state Supreme Court justice to take over the state's primary and runoff elections.
In some ways, this would appear to be a novelty case, and in court documents and public statements, Brown comes across as a comical, self-dramatizing figure. In 2003 he claimed not to know that white voters were covered under the Voting Rights Act, and after this week's ruling he said he "should have shed the rhetoric of confrontation like a soldier must put down his weapons at the end of battle." (Huh?) But there's a serious nub to this case that is worth praising.
Lee's long, conversational ruling avoids the trap of disingenuous colorblindness, noting the exceptional realities of racism against blacks, particularly in the deep South, that made the Voting Rights Act necessary. But there is substantial case law attesting to the race-neutrality of the act, and several prior rulings have noted that it would hypothetically give standing to white voters.
The situation in Noxubee County made that hypothetical real. Indeed, the county is a testament to the act's success: Its demographic breakdown of 70% black to 30% white is largely unchanged since 1965, but during the same period, its roster of elected officials has gone from 100% white to 93% black. The abuses here seem to have been less about race than about power dynamics; Brown's goal was to strengthen the Democrats.
When Art Shell became the first black NFL coach of the modern era in 1989, he quipped that real equality would come not when a black coach was hired but when one was fired (and by that measure Shell, who has since been canned twice by the Oakland Raiders, is practically the Frederick Douglass of football). The Mississippi voting case, which Lee called "atypical," may not fit that pattern of progress, but it's a sign of change that a black official in the deep South was in a position to abuse his office in this way -- and a useful reminder that the law is supposed to function equally for one and all.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times