Racial justice

  • July 17, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    When Harvard Law School’s Laurence Tribe delivered the Chautauqua Institution’s 11th annual Robert H. Jackson Lecture on the U.S. Supreme Court last week, he had a lot of material to cover. The latest Supreme Court Term was eventful. From the Court’s historic recognition of same-sex marriage equality in Obergefell to its decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges in King, June 2015 produced decisions that will impact the way millions of Americans live their lives.

    While Professor Tribe discussed the significance of the high court’s opinions, he also addressed recent “momentous events that shook our country and complicated the meaning of our Supreme Court’s decisions,” including the racially motivated massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston which preceded the Court’s ruling in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans by less than 24 hours.

    Tribe says, “My hope is to tie the electrifying events of June together with [former Supreme Court Justice] Jackson’s eloquence and pragmatism, to arrive at a brighter and larger sense of that Constitution, a less cramped understanding of constitutional law, and a more capacious vision of the Supreme Court’s role in giving the Constitution life.”

    A full transcript of the speech is available here and here, and the video can be viewed below.

     

  • July 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    *This piece originally appeared on The Global Legal Post.

    It turns out that an older Atticus Finch – the lawyer who in earlier years represented a black man in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – is, according to author Harper’s Lee’s recently released book Go Set a Watchman, a racist. From the front pages of the New York Times to talk shows across the airwaves, the fictional Finch is being dissected as if he were a real life hero that has fallen from grace. There have been questions about whether the author – now 89 years old --  was too mentally infirm to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Investigators from the State of Alabama reportedly even visited Ms. Lee at her nursing home to determine whether the author’s decision to publish the novel, written prior to Mockingbird, was the product of elder abuse.

    Why has this caused such a stir and why is Atticus Finch so beloved? To Kill a Mockingbird was published six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a decision that to some degree signaled that the legal system could be a legitimate tool to battle discrimination. Finch, of course, was a white lawyer in a southern town representing a black man. And, perhaps and maybe just perhaps, he became a symbol for others not directly impacted by racism to take on the battle in the coming years. I am, in particular, reminded of the white Justice Department Lawyers, including John Doar, who litigated voting rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960’s.

    That a white man in a southern town could advocate on behalf of a black man was an important message in 1960. Back then, Harper Lee did the nation a service when she created Atticus Finch. 

    The publication of Go Set a Watchman comes seven years after the election of Barak Obama lulled some into belief that discrimination had seen its day, while providing others with the perception that discrimination in this era could go undetected.  

    The tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, among other recent events, was a reminder that discrimination (to loosely borrow a phrase from the poet Langston Hughes) is festering like a sore that we notice only when it runs. Yet, look hard enough, search the internet, and it is easy to find cyber space meetings of the Klu Klux Klan and the most vulgar reminders that racism and antisemitism are unfortunately alive.

    The events of Charleston were tragic and of course noticeable. Unfortunately discrimination too often is not noticeable except to the victim. Employers biased by their own perceptions can still, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, make decisions based on race, religion or gender that are almost impossible to redress in a court of law.      

    I suppose that there is some sadness in learning the true prejudices of Atticus Finch. But maybe Harper Lee has once again done the nation a service by reminding us that racism – and the discrimination that it produces – can be harboured by the most unlikely of characters.

  • June 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Washington Office

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    My soul is heavy. A young white man walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire, killing nine black parishioners gathered in prayer. A grandmother said she had to play dead to shield her five-year-old grandchild from slaughter. A prominent state senator, who was also a pastor, was leading Wednesday night Bible study when he was gunned down, along with an 87-year-old elder. 

    This massacre was an act of terrorism, pure and simple. For African Americans in this country today, it seems there is no sanctuary anywhere.

    This is not a good time to be black in America. According to one analysis released this week, African Americans are killed at 12 times the rate of people in other developed countries around the world. But when has there ever been a good time to be black in America? We survived slavery and lynchings; weathered the Klan, the Birmingham church bombing and Bull Connor’s dogs; and were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for this? As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” My soul is heavy today.

    The issue of race and racial justice must take center stage in this country. We can no longer hide from it, or sweep it under the rug. We cannot be scared to insert it into reports and commissions and legislative initiatives. We must courageously confront it, embrace it, do whatever it takes, and heal. People of African descent in the U.S. have endured hardship and tragedy far too long.

    The tragedy at the Emanuel AME Church was not about one lone young white man. This is about centuries of systemic oppression, repression, and yes, terrorism. 

    At the Open Society Foundations, we work to combat prejudice, and to change the racial narrative in this country. We work to flush implicit bias out of the shadows, confront it, and change attitudes. We work to end the system of mass incarceration that tears so many families and communities apart, and affects black people disproportionately. We demand better policing, in the name of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others. We work to make this society more inclusive, to challenge inequality of opportunity, to improve life outcomes for all men and women of color.

  • June 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

    The most important fact about the killings in Charleston on Wednesday night is that nine people who should be alive today were murdered.  No discussion of what happened should lose sight of this essential truth.  However, it is well worth considering why they were murdered and what actions can be taken to address the racial hatred that led a white man to end the lives of nine African Americans.

    We know that the confessed killer, Dylann Roof, was motivated by racism.  A survivor of the shooting tells us that the killer responded to pleas that he stop shooting by saying “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do.”  The killer reportedly told investigators that he hoped to start a race war.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has quite rightly observed that the killer’s “crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated [South Carolina] nor from its potent symbol—the Confederate flag.”  South Carolina, of course, continues to fly “the Confederate battle flag—the flag of Dylann Roof—…on the Capitol grounds in Columbia.” Coates points out that the right thing to do -- the long overdue thing to do -- is to “take down the Confederate flag -- now.”

    Those who defend South Carolina’s continuing decision to fly the Confederate flag often claim the flag stands for states’ rights, not slavery and racism. South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford argued last night that some people see the flag as “a symbol of heritage, a symbol of states’ rights.” People are of course entitled to have an opinion, but the idea that the Confederate flag stands for states’ rights is not an opinion, it is a distortion of historical fact -- a dangerous distortion, because it can be used as cover by racists who seek to sanitize their hateful views.

    The reality is that, as historian Eric Foner says, “slavery was the fundamental cause of the civil war.”  The Confederate states subordinated states’ rights to the central goal of preserving slavery and white superiority.  The evidence supporting this reality is clear and compelling.  The Confederate constitution contained a federal supremacy clause closely modeled on the federal supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution, declaring that:  “This Constitution, and the laws of the Confederate States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the Confederate States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”  In other words, the individual states making up the Confederacy did not enjoy the unfettered ability to make their own laws.  When a state law conflicted with the Confederate constitution or a law passed by the Confederate Congress, the state law would yield. 

  • June 19, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    For those who attended, the 2015 ACS National Convention was not only an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new connections, and obtain CLE credits; it was also a time to reflect upon the important work that attorneys do every day and gain inspiration for the road ahead.  Speakers from across the country and from diverse professional backgrounds delved into the issues of the day, including voting rights, women’s access to reproductive health care, LGBT rights and marriage equality, access to counsel, and more.  Here are some highlights with links to high-quality video for those who missed the live event.

    Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, received a stirring round of applause when he encouraged students and young lawyers to represent unpopular clients, saying “we need to see the kinds of injustices that got . . . people where they are.” In attendance with Mr. Bright were Theo Shaw, one of the exonerated “Jena 6” who is now on his way to law school on a full scholarship, and Jarrett Adams, an exoneree who graduated from law school and will soon begin clerking for the court that exonerated him.

    Wendy Davis, women’s rights crusader and a former state Senator from Texas, discussed how rampant voter suppression has led to bad policies in her state, particularly concerning access to reproductive health care. “Women who lack the means to manage their fertility lack the means to manage their lives,” she declared. “It is just that simple.”

    Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for automatic registration of all eligible voters in the U.S., stating that “the ability to vote is a right, it is not a privilege.” He decried efforts to make voting less accessible, explaining that in-person voting fraud is very rare and no such widespread schemes have been detected.

    U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries discussed the ongoing need to address faulty police practices, including so-called “taxation by citation,” “stop and frisk,” and “broken windows” tactics that disproportionately target low-income people and communities of color.

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew laughs and applause during her conversation with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. Speaking about her groundbreaking career, she said “I don’t think the meaning of feminism has changed,” it has always meant “girls should have the same opportunity to dream, aspire, achieve . . . as boys.” It’s about “women and men working together to help make society a better place.”