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NEW YORK

In Winslow Homer's iconic painting "Prisoners From the Front," three Confederate prisoners and a Union officer confront each other against the backdrop of a Civil War battlefield. The Southern soldiers may be prisoners, but there is no sign of defeat or surrender in their manner.

Here's Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator of a new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "The standoff epitomizes the lingering hostility and bitterness felt on the part of the Confederates, and by extension the Northerners' cluelessness as to the depth of that animosity."

On the Fourth of July, we went to the Met to see the surprising and thought-provoking, new collection, "The Civil War and American Art."

As Americans celebrated their independence and marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in the same week, it felt like the right time to learn more about our collective history and to reflect on what it means for the future.

We live in a time in which some in public life want to pretend that race discrimination is no longer the government's concern.

But reflecting on these images from the war to end slavery, I kept thinking about all the ways that race and the politics of race continue to cast a long shadow over the American story.

Maybe it was because our visit came nine days after a bare majority on the United States Supreme Court decided to gut the Voting Rights Act.

This new collection of art and a companion exhibition of Civil War photographs tell the story of the Civil War in three parts:

There was the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and the grim expectation that a civil war could not be avoided.

There was the war and its terrible carnage (750,000 people died).

Finally, there was the devastation visited on the economy of the Southern states and the bitterness that ensued.

In the catalog published with the new exhibitions, Harvey describes Southern resentments: "Left to pick up the pieces and start anew, many in the South descended into bitter recriminations ... and they conjured gallant fantasies of the Lost Cause."

In considering the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to throw out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, people disagree about whether it was the correct interpretation of the law, but there is no disagreement about the impact.

The court's dismantling of the landmark 1965 legislation effectively removes federal oversight and offers nine states — primarily Southern states — permission to adopt rules that will have the effect of limiting the influence of low-income and minority voters.

Within hours, states such as Alabama, North Carolina and Texas put in motion election law changes. Redistricting schemes will be used to create safe districts for white incumbents. New voter-ID laws will be imposed in the name of preventing voter fraud.

But there is scant evidence that voter fraud is a problem in this country.

What has changed are the demographics of the American electorate. As the number of Latino citizens continues to grow, a Republican Party that relies on the support of white voters — and which seems determined to antagonize minority voters — will find it more difficult to win elections, especially national elections.

The states' actions provided all the evidence necessary to counter the court majority's claim that these states no longer require supervision to compel them to play fair. Coincidentally, these election rules will also complicate GOP efforts to reach out to minority voters.

Congress could reinstate guidelines in the Voting Rights Act, but as the members of the Supreme Court know, Congress could do many things if it was capable of putting the well-being of the country first.

From the Civil War and Reconstruction to the present, race and race bias have remained part of the fabric of American politics.

Through the 1950s, the Democratic Party managed to hold together a fragile coalition of Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats — so-called Dixiecrats — by not pushing too hard when it came to segregation and other barriers to equal rights in Southern states.

But the time came when Democratic presidents, first John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson, could no longer look the other away while millions of people were being denied the right to vote, to attend a good school, to find housing and a job.

When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Johnson told colleagues it could wreck the old Democratic coalition — and he was right.

When Republican Richard Nixon pursued his "Southern strategy" in 1968, the GOP, the party of Abraham Lincoln, became the party of choice for a majority of Southern voters. Over the next 40 years, only two Democrats would win the White House, and both were Southerners, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Winslow Homer's painting — produced a year after the Civil War ended — seems to foretell conflicts that would linger long after slavery was abolished.

And so here we are, a nation still divided when it comes to maintaining protections against race bias — a nation still in search of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.