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“Subtle Forms Of Discrimination”: Without Economic And Educational Justice, There Is No Racial Justice

Student civil rights activists join hands and sing as they prepare to leave Ohio to register black voters in Mississippi. The 1964 voter registration campaign was known as Freedom Summer.

On a hot, dusty June day fifty years ago, during what became known as Freedom Summer, college students began to arrive in Mississippi—then the most closed society in America—to help register black residents to vote. Three civil rights workers were brutally murdered, a trauma that pierced the heart of our nation and thrust into the open the racist oppression of black political rights by Mississippi’s leaders.

Since that momentous summer, our country has made great strides to extend civil and political rights to all Americans regardless of race. Still, African Americans today face obstacles just as real as poll taxes and segregated restrooms; the difference is that these obstacles are now embedded in our institutions and social structures instead of being posted on public walls.

The reality is that, a half-century after Freedom Summer, African Americans continue to face severe barriers not just to voting but also to economic security. In fact, on the economic front, some indicators have even gotten worse and problems more entrenched in recent decades. The gap between black and white household incomes, for example, is actually wider today than it was in the mid-1960s. So if the primary Civil Rights struggle 50 years ago was for basic political rights, today it is for equal access to the ladder of economic mobility.

A key factor behind persistent racial inequality involves the failures of our education system. While African Americans may no longer be barred from attending school with white children, they still face disproportionate challenges in accessing the quality education that is a stepping stone to a decent life in America. One example is that black students today must survive a climate of punitive and discriminatory discipline that unfairly pushes them out of school and into the criminal justice system. Only last year, a sweeping federal settlement of charges of discriminatory discipline was finalized in the town of Meridian—the same town from which the three murdered civil rights workers left in 1964 on their final day of advocacy. Continued support is needed for such efforts to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

The job market is another area still rife with racial inequities. While high school graduation rates for African Americans have improved dramatically since 1964, nearly 35 percent of recent black male high school graduates nationwide have no job—a far higher jobless rate than any other group. However, this summer, 100 of these students in the Mississippi Delta and Biloxi are now working full time in a project to support the restoration of federal summer jobs programs. Although it was launched on short notice, this initiative was flooded with three times more applications than available positions. Providing summer jobs opportunities is a vital first step towards ensuring economic stability.

In higher education, the white-black gap in college graduation has worsened, setting the stage for similar racial disparities in the job market. One problem is that African Americans seeking to advance beyond a minimum wage job often are recruited through targeted advertising into fast-track for-profit career schools as an alternative to traditional college education. Many of these companies charge hefty tuition fees, even as they fail to deliver degrees that qualify people for their intended career. Over the past several months, the U. S. Department of Education has proposed regulations to curb the misconduct of these predatory schools and ensure that career degrees lead to employment. Reining in these predatory schools will require support for strong final regulations, which are to be issued this fall.

It’s not just education and jobs: Deregulation in the lending industry in the 1980s further narrowed opportunities for many working African American families. Even as families supported by a minimum wage earner sank below the poverty line, state legislatures enabled the emergence of the predatory payday lending industry by carving out exceptions to their usury laws to allow small dollar, high-interest loans. So, just as the paychecks of poor families no longer met basic survival needs, and as traditional banks withdrew service from low-income neighborhoods, the payday industry ramped up pressure to ensnare borrowers into a cycle of high-interest loans that become a revolving door of debt.

In Mississippi, after fast-cash lobbyists blocked reforms in the state legislature, the Mississippi Center for Justice launched a new model for providing loans to low-income borrowers: the New Roots Credit Partnership, an alliance between employers and banks to provide emergency loans on fair, non-predatory terms. A growing number of Mississippi employers are signing up for this program, which is a promising model for helping low-income families achieve economic security. We need to expand such efforts and ensure all Americans have access to fair banking services.

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, we recognize that America cannot know true racial justice until there is economic justice. We should attack those more subtle forms of discrimination with just as much energy and determination as did those who started a powerful movement in the long, hot summer of 1964.

 

By: Reilly Morse, The American Prospect, July 3, 2014

July 5, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Economic Inequality, Racism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“This Is Not Your Independence Day”: Celebrating The Birth Of An Imperfect Union As The Fight For ‘Freedom’ Has Yet To Be Won

Every year, proud U.S. citizens across the country take a break from daily life to commemorate the birth of America. Dusting off the grill, buying frozen meat en masse, attempting to retreat to the nearest body of water, and putting sparklers in the hands of small children might not be exactly what our founding fathers envisioned, but who am I to argue with a long weekend? I enjoy a good fireworks show as much as the next girl. And beachside BBQs? I’m in. Red, white, and blue happens to be the color scheme of my most flattering bikini, so by all means, pass the veggie dogs and pump up the revelry.

But amidst the pomp and circumstance, please don’t wish me a “Happy Independence Day!”

The 4th of July might commemorate the independence of our country — but it also serves as a bitter reminder that in 1776, the country that I love had no place for me in it.

When our founding fathers penned, “All men are created equal,” they meant it. Not all people. Not all humans. Just all men — the only reason they didn’t feel obliged to specify “white” men is because, at the time, men of color were considered less than men, less than human.

The 4th is not my Independence Day — and if you’re a Caucasian woman, it isn’t yours either. Our “independence” didn’t come for another 143 years, with the passage of The Woman’s Suffrage Amendment in 1919. The 4th of July is also not Independence Day for people of color. It wasn’t until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 that all men had the right to vote regardless of race — on paper, that is, not in practice. People of color were systematically, and all too successfully, disenfranchised for another century. July 4th of 1776 was certainly not a day of Independence or reverence for Native Americans. It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans could unilaterally become citizens of the United States and have the voting rights to go with it.

Now, before anyone argues that Independence is about more than voting rights, I’d like to point out that our Founding Fathers would fundamentally disagree with you. The Revolutionary War was fought, in large part, because of “taxation without representation” — the then English colonists believed they were not free because their voices were not represented. The right to vote, the right to have your say is the delineating characteristic of a democracy.

There is nothing finite about freedom. July 4, 1776 was a definitive step forward in the struggle toward freedom and democracy but we were a long way off from achieving it. And while we have advanced in leaps and bounds — my patriotic swimwear goes over way better in Williamsburg, Brooklyn than it would have in Colonial Williamsburg — we are still a far way off from the freedom and independence we’re celebrating.

A resurgence in voter ID laws put in place to once again disenfranchise minorities challenges our collective independence.

This week’s Hobby Lobby ruling — deciding that a woman’s employer has any say in her health care — is a challenge to the ideology of freedom and autonomy our country was founded upon.

The on-going fight for marriage equality prevents same-sex couples in many states from the pursuit of happiness that they are constitutionally guaranteed.

So by all means, enjoy your long weekend. Raise a beer to the ideals of progress and democracy that the 4th of July represents.

But remember that you are celebrating the birth of an imperfect union, remember that the fight for ‘freedom’ has yet to be won — and if you must wish someone a “Happy Independence Day!”, make sure you’re doing something to maintain and advance the Independence you have come to appreciate.

 

By: Carina Kolodny, The Huffington Post Blog, July 3, 2014

July 4, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Democracy, Founding Fathers, Fouth of July | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Struggle For Voting Rights Continues”: Honoring The Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. On that great day in 1964, surrounded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other national leaders, President Johnson outlawed discrimination based on race. While the Civil Rights Act did not eliminate literacy tests, those evil tools used in the South to prevent blacks from voting, it did require that voting rules be applied equally to all races. And it paved the way for the landmark passage of the Voting Rights Act one year later.

It’s hard to believe that in 1964, less than 7 percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote. I was reminded of the hardships of that era the other day while watching Freedom Summer, the incredible PBS documentary on the young black and white volunteers who flooded Mississippi in 1964 to increase voter registration, educate African-American children and draw attention to the countless injustices taking place every day in the Magnolia State.

“What we were trying to do was to organize these communities to take possession of their own lives. For the last hundred years the ability of black people to control their own destiny had been taken away from them,” Freedom Summer organizer Charlie Cobb recalls in the film.

Freedom Summer volunteers walked through neighborhoods, struck up conversations in cotton fields, and sat on porches. They reminded local African-Americans that they could vote for sheriff and stop intimidation by the local police. But it was not an easy pitch.

“Immediately, what you found out you were dealing with was fear,” remembers Cobb, who at the time was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. “They would say, ‘You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote, but I ain’t going down there to mess with them white people.’ “

Cobb, who would become a distinguished journalist and author and visiting professor at Brown University, told PBS that the fear was overwhelming. “Within that small group of people who did try and register to vote, very few of them actually got registered to vote.” Voting forms were designed to be absurdly complex, and local registrars controlled who was accepted to vote. “In some counties, when people went in to register, their names would appear in the newspaper the next day. That could have recriminations for all members of their family,” said historian John Dittmer. “It could mean they would lose their job. There were real consequences to taking this risk.”

That was 50 years ago, but the struggle for voting rights continues. Today, strict photo ID requirements and cutbacks to early voting are creating obstacles at the ballot box that disproportionately affect seniors, students, low-income individuals and people of color. Twenty-two states have passed new voting-restriction laws, and advocates are fighting back in court. We must continue to support free and fair voting for all Americans, and to honor the civil rights pioneers who came before us.

 

By: Page Gardner, The Huffington Post Blog, July 2, 2014

July 3, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dignity Is A Constitutional Principle”: Institutionalized Humiliation And The Constitutional Requirements Of Equal Protection

With gay marriage litigation moving forward at warp speed — federal judges have struck down five state bans on same-sex marriage since December — we may soon witness one of the worst shouting matches in Supreme Court history. Passions were already running high last June, when a divided court struck down federal, but not state, laws defining marriage exclusively as a relationship between a man and a woman. Justice Antonin Scalia denounced the majority opinion, which cited the demeaning and humiliating effects of the Defense of Marriage Act, as “legalistic argle-bargle” lacking any basis in our constitutional tradition. Writing for the five justices in the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy countered that the assault on human dignity should be decisive in condemning the statute as unconstitutional.

In making this “dignitarian” move, Justice Kennedy relied principally on his two earlier pathbreaking opinions supporting gay rights, in 1996 and 2003. He did not link his guiding philosophy to the broader principles hammered out during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Yet that constitutional legacy would strongly support any future Supreme Court decision extending Justice Kennedy’s reasoning to state statutes discriminating against gay marriage. Indeed, the court should reinforce its dignitarian jurisprudence by stressing its roots in the civil rights revolution — and thereby demonstrate that it is Justice Scalia, not Justice Kennedy, who is blinding himself to the main line of constitutional development.

Consider the great speeches made 50 years ago today as the Senate began its decisive debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill’s floor managers were the Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and the Republican Thomas H. Kuchel. As they surveyed the scene on March 30, 1964, it was far from clear that they had the 67 votes required to break a filibuster led by Southern senators. So they were determined to make their case to the larger public and mobilize popular support for a sustained effort to win a cloture vote.

As The Washington Post reported at the time, the two floor leaders dominated the first day’s proceedings with elaborate presentations that set the stage “for a serious no-nonsense debate” on the fundamental issues. Humphrey began with a remarkable three-and-a-half-hour speech that introduced the central theme of humiliation by comparing two travel guidebooks: one for families with dogs, the other for blacks. “In Augusta, Ga., for example,” Humphrey noted, “there are five hotels and motels that will take dogs, and only one where a Negro can go with confidence.” He argued that if whites “were to experience the humiliation and insult which awaits Negro Americans in thousands and thousands of such places, we, too, would be quick to protest.” Kuchel followed up with a second major presentation, emphasizing the “urgency” of ending the “humiliating forms of discrimination” confronting blacks.

On other occasions, Humphrey repeatedly linked this anti-humiliation principle to the larger aim of securing “freedom from indignity” for blacks and other groups. This link was further reinforced by President Lyndon B. Johnson. “We cannot deny to a group of our own people,” he argued, “the essential elements of human dignity which a majority of our citizens claim for ourselves.” In making their case to the American people, these leaders succeeded in pressuring Senate fence-sitters to close down the filibuster, on June 10, after it had monopolized the floor for more than two months.

But they failed in their larger aim. Their elaborate speeches were also addressed to future generations, articulating fundamental principles that Americans should consider in defining the terms of constitutional equality. Yet as Justice Scalia’s denunciation of Justice Kennedy’s opinion illustrates, America’s lawyers and judges are in danger of consigning these views of Congress and the president to legal oblivion. They seem to suppose that the only civil rights opinions worth studying are those of the Warren and Burger courts — even though the judicial initiatives of those courts would have gone nowhere without the mobilized support of the political branches and the American people.

This is a mistake. To be sure, the judges of the civil rights era also emphasized the link between institutionalized humiliation and the constitutional requirements of equal protection. Most famously, Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional precisely because it stigmatized blacks, generating “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Yet once we recognize that Congress and the president broadened and deepened the nation’s commitment to Brown’s anti-humiliation principle, we can gain a larger perspective on contemporary civil rights struggles.

This point applies not only to gay marriage but also to sexual harassment. When the courts condemn “harassment” on the job or in schools, they are using a different word to describe the very same dynamics of institutionalized humiliation repudiated by the framers of the Civil Rights Act.

This constitutional legacy should also shape our understanding of future civil rights struggles. Consider the situation of undocumented immigrants as they seek to attend school, get a job or drive to the supermarket. They face pervasive humiliation in sphere after sphere of social life. Does this not amount to a systematic denial of the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the Constitution to all persons “within the jurisdiction” of the United States?

Fifty years ago, our parents and grandparents faced the same question when confronting the humiliations imposed on blacks. As we search for guidance on the great constitutional issues of our own time, the place to begin is with the words of Humphrey as he explained why Americans could no longer “justify what we have done to debase humanity.” He argued that we “do not have to be lawyers to understand, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ”

 

By: Bruce Ackerman, Professor of Law and Political Science, Yale University; Opinion Writer, The New York Times, March 29, 2014

March 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Constitution, Marriage Equality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Blatant Violation Of Civil Rights”: When ‘Religious Liberty’ Was Used To Deny All Health Care To Women And Not Just Birth Control

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga Wood Specialties’ claims that they should be exempt from their legal obligations to provide a full range of health coverage — in this case, contraceptive care for women — because they object to providing this coverage on religious grounds. Yet, for women who worked for a California private school in the 1980s, this lawsuit must feel like déjà vu. Nearly three decades ago, the Fremont Christian School claimed a similar right to deny health coverage to its female employees, citing its religious beliefs as justification for doing so. Fremont Christian’s case does bear one important difference from Hobby Lobby’s, however, they did not just want to deny birth control to their employees — they wanted to deny all health coverage to many of the women in their employ.

Fremont was owned by a church which claimed that “in any marriage, the husband is the head of the household and is required to provide for that household.” Because of this belief, they had a very unusual compensation package for their employees — though Fremont offered a health plan to its workers, the plan was only available to “heads of households” which Fremont interpreted to mean single people or married men. When a woman became married, she was to rely on her husband for health care.

(In what Fremont described as an “act of Christian charity,” there was an exemption to this rule. A married woman could receive health benefits if “the husband is incapable of providing for his family, by virtue of non-working student status, or illness” though the school also emphasized that “the husband is still scripturally the head of the household.”)

Offering one set of employee benefits to men and a different, inferior package to women is a blatant violation of federal civil rights law, which prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” While Fremont claimed that their religious liberty gave them a trump card, a federal appeals court disagreed. “Congress’ purpose to end discrimination,” the court explained, “is equally if not more compelling than other interests that have been held to justify legislation that burdened the exercise of religious convictions.”

So could a victory for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cause the courts to rethink Fremont Christian? Probably not. Society’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination against women is widely accepted, even by conservative judges, and Fremont Christian is an extreme case. Nevertheless there is reason to be concerned about what happens with religious employers who push the envelope only slightly less than Fremont Christian School did.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” But a decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood’s favor would place courts in the awkward position of picking and choosing among religious faiths. What happens to sects of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, who have religious objections to blood transfusions? Or to faiths that object to certain vaccines? Or to Scientologists who object to psychiatry? Or to Christian Scientists who object to modern medical science altogether?

If Hobby Lobby wins, are these faiths now empowered to deny health coverage to their employees as well? And if not, why not? If the Court rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor, it will either need to abandon its longstanding neutrality among religions, or it will need to allow every sect to exempt itself from health coverage laws that it does not want to follow — including, potentially, sects like the one in Fremont Christian. Moreover, Hobby Lobby’s brief argues that any law burdening an employer’s religious exercise must survive “the most demanding test known to constitutional law.” That is not a good position to be in if your employer objects to blood transfusions or mental health care.

Although there is a superficial basis for Hobby Lobby’s argument, they are asking the Court for a massive shift in the law. For decades, the Supreme Court has respected the principle that one person’s religious liberty stops at another person’s body — and this is especially true in the business context. As the Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” If the law were otherwise, Lee warned, employers could “impose” their “religious faith on [their] employees.”

Any decision favoring Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood will have to drive a massive hole through Lee. The essence of both businesses claims is that they should not have to follow the same health care laws that apply to all other businesses, and that employers should be able to limit their employees’ ability to obtain contraception because the employer objects to its use. But once Lee falls, it is not at all clear what rises in its place, or how easily courts are going to be able to draw a distinction between relatively narrow claims like Hobby Lobby’s and sweeping attempts to deny health care like Fremont Christian’s — not to mention the many grey areas in between.

 

By: Ian Millhiser, Think Progress, March 23, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Women's Health | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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