Vol. 26 No. 4 (August 2016) pp. 62 – 64
LATINOS AND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT: THE SEARCH FOR RACIAL PURPOSE, by Henry Flores. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015. 318pp. Cloth $100.00 ISBN: 0739190458.
Reviewed by Mark Kessler, Department of Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies, Texas Woman’s University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This impressive and important volume explores some of the ways in which law has been used in recent times to disempower minority voters and distort democracy in the United States. Specifically, it focuses on the role that race and racism played in redistricting plans and the passage of a voter identification law in the state of Texas in 2011. Both of these actions were challenged in federal courts as violations of the Voting Rights Act and provide opportunities to examine them in relation to voting rights litigation more generally.
The book’s author, Henry Flores, is a Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Flores brings to his analyses almost thirty years of experience as an expert witness in voting rights cases. The core of this book is based on his recent experiences serving as expert witness for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, charged with the responsibility to use his knowledge of social science to address the issue of racial purpose or intent in redistricting plans and the voter identification law. Flores provides an insider’s view of this litigation and produces a richly detailed and nuanced narrative based on voluminous documentary evidence related to both cases.
Flores skillfully places recent voting rights litigation in a useful legal-historical context, focusing especially on the Supreme Court’s decision in 1977 in VILLAGE OF ARLINGTON HEIGHTS V. METROPOLITAN DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION. In that case, the Court announced that government action was not discriminatory and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause if it merely has a “disproportionate impact” on a racial group. Successful arguments that government action is discriminatory, the Court suggested further, must show that the government acted with a “racially discriminatory intent or purpose” (xii). The author suggests that the documentary evidence—evidence that included email communications among the parties—provides clear, compelling, and direct evidence of a racial intent and purpose in Texas’ redistricting plan. However, the documents for the voter identification law that he closely read include no clear and direct discussion of race among participants.
In response to the standard announced in ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Flores, both as expert witness and as scholar, is interested in exploring the possibility that racial intent and purpose exists, where explicit reference to race is missing in the documentary evidence. This interest leads the author to develop an innovative methodological approach, relying on both quantitative and qualitative techniques, to examine racial dynamics in the consideration and passage of the voter identification law. Flores’ compelling approach to exploring racial intent and purpose in the law focuses on social, political, and discursive histories, relations of power and privilege, the use of coded, indirect references to race, political behavior, and legislative maneuvers to demonstrate how a racial purpose underlies the voter identification law in Texas.
Flores provides solid and detailed analyses of ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, the factors required by the Court in this case to prove an unconstitutional “racial purpose” for legislative action, the history, as well as legal and political relevance of tense race relations between Anglos and Latinos/as in Texas, and the methodological challenges for expert witnesses, as well as scholars of race, in determining motivations for legislative actions that have racial implications. [*63] Flores’ discussion of “racial shields,” rhetorical code words that obfuscate racial purposes, is especially useful in understanding the underlying motivations for the voting identification law.
This study may be viewed as a supplement to other works in Latcrit theory and race studies seeking to expand binary conceptions of race in law and much social science scholarship—conceptions viewing race in a dualistic fashion composed of whites and African Americans. While race relations between blacks and whites, emerging from a history of slavery, remain extremely significant, Flores demonstrates in a convincing and striking way how Latinos/as, defined racially in Texas as “white,” historically served as a “buffer” race between Anglos and African Americans but were as a group treated very differently than Anglos, often in a discriminatory way and as an inferior race. The latter phenomenon is recognized by the Supreme Court in 1954, the same year as BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, in the landmark, yet often underappreciated case of HERNANDEZ V. TEXAS, in which the Court rules that jury trials in Texas were unconstitutional because they excluded Mexican Americans from the jury.
Flores’ focus on the history of Anglo and Latino/a relations in Texas, and the detailed analysis of two contemporary voting rights cases, provide excellent examples of the need for a continuing expansion of critical race studies to understand a multiplicity of racial groups, racial oppressions, and the complexity of racial hierarchies. In addition, such hierarchies may be understood more completely than what is accomplished in this volume with more conscious efforts to focus on the role of intersecting identities—such as race, gender, class, sexualities, and disability—on the
distribution of resources and power produced by public policies and other official actions.
The clear strength of this book is in its practical applications to social science research of the legal principles enunciated by the Court in ARLINGTON HEIGHTS. But importantly and in addition, Flores, in the book’s concluding chapter, begins to place the findings from the practical adaptation in the context of scholarship in “whiteness and abolition studies” (Olson 2004), “color-blind theory” (Bonilla-Silva 2014), and “strategic racism” (Haney-López 2015). In this way, this study provides an example of a research project connecting theory and practice in a politically significant way. This study also suggests ways in which the knowledge and analytical tools of political science and political theory may intersect with Latcrit race studies to address fundamental political and social issues impacting historically marginalized populations.
Overall, this book shows the continuing relevance of race and racism in U.S. politics and policy and some ways in which racial prejudice may distort American democracy. It also outlines a promising methodology for scholars and legal activists alike to examine and, when relevant, demonstrate racial motivations in governmental actions. This study is a model of politically engaged research that makes significant contributions to the jurisprudence of equal protection, social science methods, and critical race studies. The descriptions and analyses regarding the role of race and racism in official governmental actions constituting the core of the research described in this volume are especially timely given our current politics, in which political rhetoric, policy proposals, and the actions of public agencies are increasingly challenged by political and legal activists and social movements.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. RACISM WITHOUT RACISTS: COLOR-BLIND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA. 4th ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Haney-López, Ian F. 2014. DOG WHISTLE POLITICS: HOW CODED RACIAL APPEALS HAVE REINVENTED RACISM AND WRECKED THE MIDDLE CLASS. New York: Oxford University Press.
Olson, Joel. 2006. ABOLITION OF WHITE DEMOCRACY. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [*64]
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCTION OF TOPEKA, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
HERNANDEZ V. TEXAS, 347 US 475 (1954).
VILLAGE OF ARLINGTON HEIGHTS V. METROPOLITAN DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION, 429 US 252 (1977).
© Copyright 2016 by author, Mark Kessler.