Economic Inequality

  • September 19, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law, @atibaellis. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    On September 17, 1787, the framers signed the U.S. Constitution. The document they approved 227 years ago is a work of genius as it provided a democratic republic that has endured economic turmoil, mass insurrection, and disasters of various sorts -- forces that have toppled other democracies.  The U.S. Constitution, the oldest enduring written constitution in the world today, has endured and preserved democracy based upon rule of law.

    Although one might point to the advantages and disadvantages of federalism, the dynamics of enumerated powers, or the political compromises that undergird separation of powers as powerful tactics the Constitution deploys, it is not in any of these mechanisms where the genius of the Constitution lies. Its true genius is its mechanism to allow we the people to reinvent our democracy as our times and ethics demand. It is this power of reinvention that has allowed our constitution to endure and matter to the world. 

    This power of democratic transition is best illustrated in the way our Constitution has been reinvented, over time, from a document that enshrined inequality to one that strives for equality. The Constitution of 1787 reflected and implemented a social theory we would not recognize or sanction today. The Constitution endorsed states’ rights (though this name would not be invented until a century later to protect slavery) and left it to the states to structure the social relations of the nation. Thus, despite a Bill of Rights that protected the rights of citizens, the Constitution allowed the chattel slavery of Africans to endure in the United States when it was being abolished in other parts of the world. The Constitution allowed women to be treated as property. Despite our hymns to constitutional genius, the lived experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was rooted in inequality.

    To focus merely on the genius of the original document (and as a consequence, elevate those times and those founders) is to fixate on an originalism that suffered subordination and endorsed a hierarchy. And, as our experience with the Civil War illustrates, the country came within a hair’s breath of being dismantled by faction and racism due to an unwillingness to recreate the United States.

    Yet our Constitution endures because it has embedded within it mechanisms by which our evolving notions of equality and justice may receive constitutional protection from the tyranny of caste and status. Though volumes have been written on this topic, it is worth remembering in our celebration of the Constitution that the amendment process and the wisdom of legislators and judges who sought to make manifest the idea of equality helped to preserve the Union at its most imperiled points. One needs only recount the work of Reconstruction, the long march from segregation to Civil Rights, the movement towards women’s equality, and our modern day same-sex marriage cases to see how the long arc of equality has progressed. And all of these changes have been enabled through an American constitutionalism that, in the words of Harper v. Virginia, is not shackled to the political theory of a particular era.

  • September 2, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Eric J. Segall, who spoke at the ACS Supreme Court Review in June, profiles in Salon Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and his rulings on high-profile cases that are likely to be decided by the Supreme Court.

    In The New York Times, Adam Liptak reports that Supreme Court justices are increasingly putting data from amicus briefs into their opinions.

    Robert J. Samuelson argues in The Washington Post that more workers are at the mercy of the market and questions whether this trend will continue.  

    Vanita Gupta argues at CNN that drug laws are too harsh and out of step with public opinion.

    The question of how much oversight the federal government can have over state voter ID laws is up for debate in Texas, reports Laurel Brubaker Calkins for Bloomberg

  • August 22, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal interviews Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, discussing racial problems in the U.S., major rulings, and law schools.

    Bob Herbert writes for Jacobin on the likelihood of another Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown: “The deepest concerns of blacks are seldom acted upon in any sustained, effective way. Most of the time, they are not even taken seriously.”

    In The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller explains how part-time pay hurts working mothers.

    Sarah Jaffe, Mariame Kaba, Randy Albelda and Kathleen Geier write in The Nation on the need to end the demonization of poor mothers.

    Carson Whitelemons of the Brennan Center for Justice explains how voting rights laws in Ferguson block citizens from having a fair say.  

  • August 21, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law, (@atibaellis)

    In a previous post, I discussed the triumph of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage sounded the death knell of legalized white supremacy and promised an era of equal opportunity.  With the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent civil unrest and siege policing in Ferguson, Mo., we must recognize another reoccurrence reminiscent of fifty years ago -- protest and in response to enduring racial subjugation. 

    The Ferguson situation is about the unjustified death of a Black youth (and the fact that this happens all too often in America). This happened in the context of the reality of structural inequality in America that civil rights policy has failed to address. As I argued in that earlier post, formal equality does not go far enough to remedy the enduring legacies of white supremacy, legacies that keep repeating themselves in police violence, political underrepresentation, and minority economic stagnation. It fosters a de facto second-class society for people of color without the economic wherewithal to navigate the system. 

    This structural reality exists and replicates notwithstanding the good intentions of the law or of people who rely on formal equality as remedy. Daria Roithmayr, Ian Haney Lopez, and Michelle Alexander have provided lucid scholarly explanations of different facets of 21st century racism.  The situation in Ferguson illustrates this reality in a number of ways.

    First, the shooting of Michael Brown offers a view on the reality of the enduring abuse that people of color suffer at the hands of the police. The problems of racial profiling, the use of excessive force by police departments, and the violence suffered by Black men and boys in particular has been well documented.  To take just one source: the ACLU has written numerous accounts about racial profiling in the United States. What their work makes clear is that the police disproportionately target minorities, and particularly minority youth because of their race.  And as a recent post on their blog has made clear, such profiling, and the tragic deaths that accompany it, are all too common in the United States.  And for those minority youth that survive these encounters, they are disproportionately incarcerated. The Sentencing Project has documented not only the 500 percent increase in incarceration rates in U.S. prisons generally over the last century, but the fact that a Black male under 35 has a 1 in 10 chance of being incarcerated.

    Second, as others have noted, Ferguson is two-thirds Black and one-third white, yet its mayor and five of the six members of its city council are white. And the overwhelming majority of its police force is white. And, as The New York Times has reported, this segregated power structure is the product of a long history of racial tension. The patterns of overzealous policing and unrepresentative governance make clear that the authorities in Ferguson are out of touch with the interests of the majority of people in Ferguson. This suggests a failure of competitive politics and a resistance of the government in Ferguson to hear the interests of its people. (Even when activists in Ferguson have sought to register people to vote – presumably to encourage people to use the democratic process rather than self-help violence – this too becomes highly contested.)

  • August 1, 2014

    by Ellery Weil

    The New York Times Editorial Board discusses a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board general counsel which found McDonald’s jointly responsible for the treatment of its workers at all of its franchises and argues that this should spur an increase in wages for fast food workers.

    Writing for SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston reports that challengers of the provision of the Affordable Care Act which provides subsides to those who obtain health insurance via the federal exchange are rushing their case to the Supreme Court, after two federal appellate courts delivered opposite rulings on the issue last month..

    At Politico, Laura W. Murphy compares attempts to reform the National Security Agency in the wake of revelations about the scope of its spying to successful efforts to limit the disparities in drug sentencing born from the War on Drugs.

    Benjamin Wittes writes at Lawfare about the CIA inspector general’s report regarding alleged hacking of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) staff files and records by the CIA.