On June 12, 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned in the driveway of his Mississippi home. Evers fought to secure Blacks’ full access to voting, education, and equality. A year later three young civil rights workers were lynched for registering voters during the famed Freedom Summer. Together the murders of Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, and Mickey Schwerner fueled the Civil Rights Movement’s commitment to securing key legislation that affirmed African-American citizenship. Fast forward fifty years and the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has issued a quartet of decisions that may erode many of those gains.
The Court’s rulings on affirmative action, voting rights, and marriage equality mean that your elderly grandmother in Texas will need to obtain a state-issued ID to vote. Your cousin in Virginia may have a tougher time getting into college and your friend Jill who married in Massachusetts will no longer have to pay a federal inheritance tax if her partner Anne passes away. These four decisions affirm the importance of Federalism for determining the meaning of citizenship. States have the right to create their own unique set of laws and policies that define your ability to vote, learn, and love. In short, democracy varies based on where you live.
Monday’s ruling on affirmative action does not directly address whether race can be considered as one of a set of factors in reaching admission decisions. By kicking it back to the states the Court affirmed that colleges and universities have a much higher burden to prove that such programs are necessary. This subjective standard creates the possibility that these programs may still be overturned at the state level. The ruling comes as African-American enrollment at state universities is declining as a result of increasing tuition rates and declining scholarship programs targeting students of color.
SCOTUS also gutted the most significant piece of legislation in modern political history, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). In striking down the pre-clearance formula (Section 4) the Court effectively aborted the Section 5 requirement that certain jurisdictions gain federal approval before changing voting procedures. The move does not mean that Blacks will lose the right to vote. The VRA was enacted to protect access to the ballot guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. Over time its protections have expanded to prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and language. 36 states are affected by the provisions of the VRA accounting for over half of the 435 seats allocated for Congress. Without an affirmative right to vote states are free to adopt electoral plans that may comprise access.
Texas has already authorized a controversial set of plans previously blocked by the Department of Justice. Similar plans are pending in Georgia, Arizona, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Alabama in spite of strong evidence that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and people of color. We won’t return to the days of basing your vote on whether you know how many bubbles are in a bar or soap. More subtle techniques will emerge such as redistricting schemes that make it more difficult to elect Black candidates and limits on the number of polling places in highly populated urban areas.
The Court’s punt on California’s Prop 8 ban on same sex marriage and dismissal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act means that couples who live in one of the 12 states that recognize same sex marriage will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The ruling does not require recognition in the 36 states that ban same sex marriage. According to a 2012 Gallup Report, African Americans make up the largest percentage of racial/ethnic groups within LGBTQ communities. Todays’ decisions will directly impact their ability to marry, raise children, and be protected from workplace discrimination.
Collectively the Court’s rulings assert a somewhat schizophrenic view of discrimination in the US but they should not be interpreted as privileging the plight of one group over another. As high school students fight to choose their dates for prom, Mississippi abolishes slavery 148 years after the rest of the country, and Trayvon Martin’s parents sit in a Florida courtroom defending the memory of their slain son, the potential impact of these decisions makes it even more imperative that community organizations, institutions, and everyday citizens fully engage the political process beyond elections.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and punishment. Find her online @KBDPHD and kbdphd.blogspot.com.