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Black leaders, Black media and the Black community’s outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision gutting the Voting Rights Act is thoroughly justified. However, the question is, will this righteous outrage be sustained? For years now, such outrage, in far too many similar cases, has been episodic, not sustainable. Tragically, the pattern has been the same; within a relatively short time, it’s business as usual in the Black community, with outrage a faded or lost memory.
Of course, there are many other similar examples of righteous outrage over the years, forgotten, but no less significant. They include: Leonard Deadwyler, shot and killed by LAPD when rushing his expectant wife to the hospital; unarmed Eula Love, killed by LAPD; Rodney King, beaten mercilessly by LAPD; unarmed 13-year-old Devon Brown, killed by LAPD; Trayvon Martin, a faded memory too, but for the start of George Zimmerman’s trail recently. Further, strong dissatisfaction over public schools’ failure to educate Black children and widespread police abuse by LAPD and LA County Sheriff deputies has in most cases, been met with a muted response, not righteous outrage. For Black people, moving beyond episodic engagement will be very difficult, but can and must happen.
Let’s examine the Supreme Court’s decision in the recent VRA and affirmative action cases. Reactions range from “deeply disappointed” (President Barack Obama) to “outrage” (Congresswoman Karen Bass). The gutted provisions of Section 4 and Section 5 are at the heart of the Court’s Voting Rights Act (VRA) ruling. Section 4 is the ”covered formula” the federal government uses to determine which states and counties are subject to continued oversight. Chief Justice John Roberts said the formula was “outdated and unworkable,” and the Court agreed.
Under Section 5, any changes in voting laws and procedures in the covered states—including much of the South—and even certain counties in California, had to be pre-cleared with Washington. But the court ruled Section 5 cannot be effectively enforced because it relies heavily on the covered formula, albeit the main tool for protecting Blacks and other minorities from state and local governments that set unfair and shifting barriers to the polls. Without Section 5, the very power and effect of the entire VRA will crumble.
VRA opponents argued, and the Supreme Court concurred in a 5-4 vote, that monitoring voting procedures under the law was overly burdensome and unwarranted. (This, despite Congress having re-authorized Sections 4 and 5 as recently as 2006.) It should also be noted that despite the bogus claim that America is a post-racial society, race and federalism were at the center of the VRA debate and there is overwhelming evidence that Blacks, in particular, continue to encounter targeted discrimination at polling places throughout America.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress re-authorized the VRA-including Sections 4 and 5- seven-years ago, with overwhelming bipartisan support, “….and (since) that body is empowered to enforce civil rights amendments by appropriate legislation, it merits this court’s utmost respect.” (Justice Kennedy voted with the majority; he is usually the No swing vote on civil rights. but the Yes swing vote in gay rights cases.)
Many conservative groups argue “ancient formulas” are still being applied, not to reverse discrimination, but to benefit a particular political party. Liberals, citing strong evidence that Blacks and other people face continuing barriers in and outside of the South, counter that Section 5 and federal oversight are being demonized by the right for political gain with the intent of continuing to divide Americans over race.
Depending on the particular opinion poll, Americans are sharply divided on affirmative action. Leading up to the Supreme Court’s VRA decision, an opinion poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 76% of Americans opposed affirmative action in college admission. But a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 68% of Americans favored the principles of affirmative action. Similar conflicting findings are shown in other polls about the role the government should play in trying to improve conditions for Blacks and other people of color. Polls, notwithstanding, Blacks are still the most demonized.
The court punted on affirmative action, (Fisher v. University of Texas). It neither ruled nor gutted affirmative action; it sent the case back to the Appellate Court for further hearing. Many contend in doing so, it reaffirmed the court’s doctrine in the landmark case, Grutter v. Bollinger, (2003). In that case, essentially, the court found that race, ethnicity and gender can be used in admissions decisions in colleges and universities as long as none is used as a primary or unilateral factor.
The intent here was to suggest we step back and acknowledge that in addition to continuing racism and systemic barriers to Black progress, the Black community too has a responsibility to develop its own self-benefiting strategies. The problem is, many Blacks are conditioned to feeling second class and do not envision having a role in developing a united agenda that serves their best interests. Change requires new mindsets, philosophy, tenets, organization, and arguably, most important, new behavior. All are critical for Black Americans; sustainable righteous outrage is only one of many important indicators that we have embarked on a self-determined agenda toward a better future.