By Harry C. Alford
The latest session of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) had the interest of Black Americans like never before. On the line were two key components that brought African Americans into full citizenship: affirmative action and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The National Black Chamber of Commerce had skin in the game as we formally filed an amicus brief for each of the pertinent cases. We file such briefs three or four times a year. We have been pretty successful in that our opinions have been on the winning side every time. We are undefeated and this week our record stayed intact.
The first decision dealt with affirmative action at the college level, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin. The issue was whether certain programs addressing past discrimination can be implemented to cure that discrimination. The Supreme Court has been quite clear on this. Yes, they can as long as the discrimination is clear and evident and that no race neutral program can solve it. In addition, you must apply a program that has strict scrutiny.
Strict scrutiny defines who is being discriminated against and who is not (a disparity study determines this). Only the victims of the discrimination can participate in the program. This follows Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The lower court made a decision that did not follow the above and the SCOTUS sent the case back for further review. All schools need to adhere to this advice. We do a pretty good job following the strict scrutiny standard with contracting programs.
The key to affirmative action is to follow the previous instructions of the Supreme Court. There is certainly discrimination happening at many levels of our society. Usually, the victims are of African descent. Until that ends, affirmative action will exist.
Now let’s look at the other case. This involves the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs claimed that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional since it is based on an historical atmosphere that no longer exists. Section 5 required certain geographies, which have a historical habit of denying certain citizens their voting rights or made it extremely difficult to register, to make no changes of any sort unless they got approval from the U.S. Department of Justice of a federal court in Washington. In 1965, intimidation, threats, literacy tests, certain references, etc. were used to block African Americans from voting in places like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and practically all of the South and certain rural counties elsewhere. Oh, this was really needed. A lot of good people were attacked and some even murdered while trying to end this inequity.
Times have certainly changed. At the time the law was enacted, African Americans had a registration rate of about 24 percent. Today, most of those areas have an African American registration rate of 74 percent or more. The amount of Black elected officials has exponentially grown from city councils to the White House. Black Americans indeed have voting power and it is never going to go away. That is why this lawsuit came about. These geographies for the most part have Black participation in all of the decisions concerning voting rights.
The National Black Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. Section 5 needs to be removed as it is antiquated and drags down the importance of the Voting Rights Act. As President Clinton would say about affirmative action, “mend it, don’t end it.” All of the traditional civil rights organizations supported President Clinton when he said this. But oh Lord, when we filed our brief all hell broke loose. Friends and foes all had something to say about our position. We are proud of our position as it was the correct thing to do and the Supreme Court agreed. Nothing bad is going to happen. Sometimes you need to update things to make them current and more effective.
Imagine, continuing to police Memphis; Jackson, Miss.; Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, etc. It is stupid. The Black vote in these areas is so strong that if something bad happens, either a Black did it or let it happen. In 2009, the Supreme Court warned Congress to update the Voting Rights Act and Congress ignored it. So this week, the Supreme Court made the needed changes itself. They admonished Congress by suggesting maybe now they will further update the Act.
The moans and screams of some of our elected officials and community leaders are unfounded. Look at Jackson, Miss. This city is now 80 percent Black and recently held a mayoral election. All three candidates were Black. The winner was Chokwe Lumumba, a career Black radical and activist. This is just one example of the success of the Voting Rights Act. Don’t listen to the lame hype. The constitution and the Voting Rights Act are stronger than ever.