In the 24 hours since the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state of Washington’s law barring felons from voting violated the Federal Voters Rights Act, the story has been widely broadcast as allowing felons to vote in prison. But the issue of prisoners participating in our democracy buries the real news in the decision. The court threw out Washington's law because its criminal-justice system is biased against minorities. The problem isn’t with disenfranchising prisoners, it’s with a state legal system that unfairly throws so many people of color in prison that their voting power is diluted. These are the court’s words:
"The expert reports, which were not refuted by the State, provide compelling circumstantial evidence of discrimination in Washington’s criminal justice system. [University of Washington sociology professor and plaintiff witness] Dr. [Robert] Crutchfield's report states that criminal justice practices disproportionately affect minorities beyond what can be explained by non-racial means. For example, African Americans in Washington State were over nine times more likely to be in prison than Whites, even though the ratio of Black to White arrest for violent offenses was only 3.72:1, suggesting that substantially more than one half of Washington State's racial disproportionality in its criminal justice system cannot be explained by higher levels of criminal involvement as measured by violent crime arrest statistics."
Such a damning report should be front-page news all over the country, especially in light of all the talk of racial progress since Obama's election. But news cycles being as short as they are, the part about voting in prison is probably the only part of this story that will reach the public consciousness.
That's a shame, because with the election of Obama, one might have assumed there'd be a little desire to remedy (or at least read about) race bias as it still exists in this country. Yet, at the moment we elect our first African-American president, resulting in, perhaps, the first significant shift in the civil-rights landscape since the Civil Rights Act, there's only gratitude that we can move on to other more pressing business. As if. The color of one's skin is a conscious or unconscious factor in every facet of American life from the sacred to the mundane, as the court made clear.
I know I talk about race for a living, and I know that if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But, by ignoring even the most public airing of our racial dirty laundry, we're not doing ourselves any favors; we're just transferring the problem to the next generation and the one after that. Washington's state attorney is sure to appeal this latest decision, so we'll be seeing this case again, maybe in the Supreme Court. And maybe by the time it gets there, we'll be brave enough to talk about the facts of the case, not just its outcome.