As we near the 50 year celebration of the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court ruled on two significant civil rights cases this week — today on Shelby County v. Holder re: the Voting Rights Act and yesterday on Fisher v. University of Texas re: affirmative action.
There is no right more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote. Yet, today, the Supreme Court of the United States made a tragic decision regarding Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — which determines which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance provision. The court ruled that this provision, designed to prevent discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures, was unconstitutional.
While the ruling did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required, it held that Section 4 can no longer be used — virtually rendering Section 5 ineffective unless and until Congress creates a new formula to determine which states and counties should be covered by it.
Let’s be clear. This is undoubtedly a bad decision. The Voting Rights Act was necessary in 1965 and remains so in 2013. If the voter suppression tactics employed by numerous states in the 2012 aren’t evidence enough, consider that in the first four months of this year alone, restrictive voting bills have been introduced in more than half the states.
This decision has the potential to contract democracy, while our efforts should continually be focused on expanding and enhancing our democratic process. It is a direct blow to 50 years of progress towards voter equality and to the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King so passionately and purposely shared with a nation in need in 1963 – and that remains so five decades later.
We will remain as diligent as ever in defending and protecting the rights that were so hard fought – and died — for during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. We will push Congress to abandon party lines and partisanship and act immediately in the best interest of our nation and our democracy by enacting a new and responsible formula for Section 4. We cannot focus on a celebration of progress until we ensure a continuation of the very equality and opportunity that are at the core of the country.
Conversely, we consider the Supreme Court¹s action in remanding Fisher v. University of Texas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit a temporary victory. Because the Court did not overturn the central premise of affirmative action, universities may still consider racial and ethnic diversity as one factor among others in their admissions policies. However, this case is not over, and its merits and future implications cannot be overestimated on either side. As the issues will be reconsidered in the lower court, the possibility exists that the case could return to the Supreme Court within the next couple of years.
What does this mean for our ongoing efforts and the work that we do every day?
The National Urban League¹s Equality Index unequivocally shows enduring disparities in educational attainment and economic conditions between blacks and whites. Affirmative action can and should be used as a vital tool to help ensure that we remain on a path to progress in which all citizens can fairly compete and succeed in a diverse environment that benefits our nation as a whole.
Those who malign affirmative action as an entitlement¹ or reverse discrimination¹ ignore the present-day inequity that denies millions of Americans true opportunity. Affirmative action is rooted in fairness and equal opportunity – nothing could be more in keeping with our founding principles as a nation.
As in the case of voting rights, we will be ready to relentlessly oppose any future ruling that would jeopardize affirmative action. We will not rest nor will we be content with just the progress of the past 50 years. Our march forward continues in the 21st century until our nation’s aspiration for ³liberty and justice for all” meets our reality.