(Editor’s note: The ‘State of Equality and Justice in America’ is part of a 20-part series of columns written by an all-star list of contributors to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.)
Strong statistical evidence that politics is re-segregating
There are demographic changes occurring in the United States that will change politics and public policy and make this country a more humane and equitable place. In another 20 to 30 years the U.S. will be a majority-minority country and White supremacy will be a discredited idea of the past. But we are not living in that future time. And for African Americans, more than half of whom live in the southern states, the facts do not speak to a just or equitable society.
Black unemployment is twice that of Whites. The average Black income is much less. Black family financial assets are one-twentieth that of Whites. There are large racial disparities in health and access to health care and much higher high school dropout rates for African Americans—and of course much higher incarceration rates.
The gains that African Americans have seen since the Civil Rights movement were substantially built on Black votes and civic participation. But despite the hardship and struggles that many African Americans face, there are many who would oppose the progress and promise the future holds. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder opened the door to widespread efforts in the South to diminish minority-voting rights.
By invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the court has effectively eliminated Section 5 federal oversight. The current U.S. House of Representatives will almost certainly NOT provide a new definition for Section 4 coverage, and so Section 5 is out for the foreseeable future.
By next year’s midterm elections, there will likely be photo identification laws operative in all the southern states, and Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than Whites to lack government issued photo IDs. The changes will not only involve photo identification laws.
There will be a headlong rush to change election laws across Section 5 jurisdictions in order to discourage minority voters. This will involve not only state governments but local ones as well.
Section 2 is still in effect, but with no preclearance provisions. What this means is that all sorts of election changes will be put into effect to diminish minority votes (moving and locating polling places, changing hours, the mechanics of voting, not to mention extralegal intimidation) without federal intervention.
Even when these changes are challenged and the civil rights community ‘wins’ the legal case, the minority community’s preferred candidate may still lose, and then the Section 2 cases result in consent decrees where the opposing side agrees not to do the same thing (actions to discourage minority voters) again—at least until the next election. The results of elections, even unfair elections, are rarely undone.
Following the election of President Barack Obama, some political observers (mostly conservative ones) suggested that the United States was now a post-racial society. At the present time, five years later, in the region of the country where a majority of African Americans live, the South, there is strong statistical evidence that politics is re-segregating with African Americans once again excluded from power and representation.
Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement. Less than a handful of the 320 Black state legislators in the South serve in the majority in their legislative chambers.
And southern state constitutions invest in the state legislatures’ power over all aspects of government in those states, including local government.
Conservative Whites control all of the political power there, and they are enacting legislation and adopting policies both neglectful of the needs of minorities (in health care, education, employment) as well as some that are downright hostile to the rights of African Americans, e.g., the assault on voting rights through photo identification laws and other means.
Last month, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies published a report based on a survey of the five Deep South states (the states with the proportionally largest Black populations like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina) on attitudes toward Medicaid expansion. Majorities of the populations in all five states, and large majorities of African Americans in those states, favored expansion. The state legislatures in those five states oppose expansion, and the disproportionally uninsured Black populations of those states will suffer the consequences.
Has the United States become a more just and equitable society? Almost 50 years ago, around the time that the Lawyers’ Committee was founded, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention where he quoted from one of his brother’s favorite poets: “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
(David A. Bositis, Ph.D., a senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, is a foremost expert on voting and Black political participation in America.
This article, the 20th of a 20-part series, is written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, of which Congressman Lewis is grand marshal. The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to enlist the private bar’s leadership and resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequality of opportunity—work that continues to be vital today. For more information, visit <www.lawyerscommittee.org>.)