90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Race

Eileen McNamara: Access to the ballot box and to the college classroom is too vital to pretend, as the majority of the high court did this week, that racism is over. In this Oct. 8, 2010 file photo, the Supreme Court justices pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated, from left are, Justice Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing, from left are, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr., and Elena Kagan. (AP)

Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” during oral arguments on the landmark civil rights law that the high court gutted on Tuesday.

On Monday, in his concurring opinion in a decision casting a skeptical eye on race conscious admission policies at the University of Texas, Justice Clarence Thomas bemoaned the failure of the court to outlaw affirmative action entirely, equating its proponents with “the people who defended segregation generations ago.”

On which post-racial planet does the majority of the nation’s highest court live exactly?

In this high court’s perverse world view, bipartisan policies enacted to remedy centuries of racial oppression threaten to become weapons of reverse discrimination aimed at the newly-beneficent white majority.

On which post-racial planet does the majority of the nation’s highest court live exactly?

These decisions came down the same week that Georgia’s Paula Deen embraced her inner racist and George Zimmerman’s attorney opened his defense to a Florida jury with a knock-knock joke [video below] about the unarmed black teenager his client shot to death last year.

I know — the president of the United States is a black man. I know, too, that racial animus is not the sole province of the South. But, in its desire to consign the bad old days to history, the conservative majority betrayed a willful blindness to the present.

The poll tax might have disappeared but discriminatory voter suppression is not yet a vestige of the past. Did the court miss the proliferation of voter identification laws or the abrupt curtailment of early voting in 2012 that disproportionately affected minorities and the poor? Has it not noticed the racial disparity in higher education where 32.6 percent of the non-Hispanic white population over the age of 25 holds a college degree compared to 19.6 percent of adult blacks.

There is little comfort in the fact that the court did not declare affirmative action in college admission itself unconstitutional or overturn the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its entirety. Civil rights are as easily eroded as they are erased. All this incrementalism just means that the U.S. Supreme Court is as deeply divided as the U.S. Congress.

As long as deep, subliminal racism persists — manifested this week in a TV cook’s slave plantation fantasies and in a neighborhood watchman’s reflexive suspicion of a hooded black teenager — there will be no such thing as a “race neutral” approach to equality in the United States.

Half a loaf might provide as little nourishment as no loaf at all. Upholding the principle of federal oversight while simultaneously striking down the formula determining which communities must get approval before altering their voting practices renders the principle moot. What are the chances of this Congress agreeing upon a new standard that would meet this court’s approval? To their credit, civil rights advocates are already at the drafting table. To their dismay, the Texas attorney general has already announced plans to immediately implement the tough voter identification law that had been awaiting federal approval.

Similarly, the fact that the court did not preclude the use of race as one factor among several to achieve a diverse student body does not mean this issue is resolved. The high court sent the Texas case back to the appeals court with instructions to determine whether the university could have achieved its diversity aims with a race-neutral approach. The appellate court must explore “how the process works in practice,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote. “Strict scrutiny must not be strict in theory but feeble in fact.”

Such second-guessing of public universities will only invite more litigation from those who object to consideration of skin color as a factor in college admission (as opposed to wallet size, athletic prowess or legacy status, none of which receive much in the way of “strict scrutiny” in our social discourse).

As long as deep, subliminal racism persists — manifested this week in a TV cook’s slave plantation fantasies and in a neighborhood watchman’s reflexive suspicion of a hooded black teenager — there will be no such thing as a “race neutral” approach to equality in the United States. Access to the ballot box and to the college classroom is too vital to pretend, as the majority of the high court did this week, that the struggle is over.

Related:

Tags: History, Law, Race

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jasoturner

    The leaner times become, the more those who can leverage their advantages will attempt to do so at the expense of others. It’s pretty easy to see who may be harmed by this ruling, and who might be marginally helped. This is certainly one of the odder supreme court assemblies I’ve seen in my lifetime in terms of logical consistency. Or is logical honesty the phrase I’m looking for?

  • Ralph850

    I just do not understand you people. The job of the Supreme Court is to decide if laws are CONSTITUTIONAL. Not honest, or your interpretation of “fair”. Nothing in the constitution provides for granting an individual preferred treatment, for any reason, least of all the color of their skin. In fact I would argue the constitution was created in part to erase bias, entirely. As for the article and it’s implication that college admissions are decided for monetary, or performance, well yeah, why not. They are private institutions. They decide who to admit based on their reasons. Not your fantasy land ideas of education for all. I agree there is racism in this country, but it comes from the refusal of people such as the author to let go of the past, refusal to admit that we are all created equal, that we all have opportunity. They buy into the idea that there are some groups that cannot do it on their own, that personal responsibility and self determination are just simply not available to “those people”. Your liberal minded eagerness to help “those people” is an insult to their humanness. You perpetuate this fraud of institutional racism by simply believing it. Yes there are racists in this world, individuals. Lets not elevate their ignorance to the level of Institutional. If some group has lower educational levels than another, why jump to the conclusion that it is due to racism? Hey maybe that group has a higher rate of single parent families? No matter how you find my arguments, it is simply wrong on it’s face to deny entry to some school simply because they don’t have some quota of a certain color student. It is simply wrong to discriminate against someone who never practised racism, whose grandparents were not alive during the years of slavery. It is wrong to provide a positive bias to someone who has never experienced Jim Crowe, whose ancestors more than likely never experienced slavery. When will this madness stop? When will we be judged on the basis of our character?

    • mamram

      You say,
      “…it is simply wrong on it’s face to deny entry to some school simply
      because they don’t have some quota of a certain color student”

      but also,
      “They decide who to admit based on their reasons. Not your fantasy land ideas of education for all.”

      That seems contradictory. Can you explain why you’re okay with institutions admitting students based on whatever reasons they’d like, except for racial diversity?

      • Ralph850

        Sure, If they decide to admit based on ability to pay, academic performance, on and on…All is well. They cannot admit based on Ethnicity, we have a constitution that guarantees Equal treatment. Dugh.

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    I couldn’t help but notice that you left out Justice Roberts’ specific point at the beginning of his opinion, “Voting discrimination still exists; noone doubts that.” It betrays your assertion that the court believes it doesn’t.

    • Gunit

      It’s called “lip service”. The Hoosier Hillbilly (I’m a Hoosier) wants everyone to believe he is a moderate, level-headed guy. I know, I grew up with guys just like him.

  • David F

    I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision. It is one step closer to bringing true racial equality to the United States. Of course for the US to be even closer to being truly equal it would be necessary to remove that one question, on so many forms for so many things, that asks what your race is. If we truly wish to be racially blind and equal why is that question there at all?

    I think holding nine states accountable for the action of almost 50 years ago is absurd. Why do those nine specific states still deserve to be held under a microscope today?

    As for voter identification laws, I’ve never had anyone adequately explain to me why voter identification laws are bad. Why don’t we want to make certain that the person claiming to vote under a certain name from a certain address really is that person and really does live there? Is it because you long for the Tamany Hall days when Boss Tweed encouraged his supporters to vote early and often? Is there something wrong with wanting to be certain that the person voting actually has a right to vote? Do you really want people who are not citizens of this country to vote in our elections? If you are not a legal resident of the place where you are trying to vote, then you have no business voting there, which by the way goes for college students as well, that’s what absentee ballots are for. Every year I was in the military I filled out an absentee ballot for my state of residence, it was a very simple procedure.

    You also mentioned Affirmative Action, something that hopefully the Supreme Court will also one day strike down. Instead of affirmative action why not judge all applicants, be it for college or for employment, only on their merits and qualifications for the position. Race should not be a factor at all.

  • samuelpepys

    As is clear from the comments on Ms. McNamara’s op-ed, one thing her otherwise thoughtful and dismayingly necessary piece failed to point out is how well racism is thriving right here, in the state that raised Louise Day Hicks–the state in which, on the day I moved here, a black girl was soaked in gasoline on the street and set on fire by a bunch of teenaged white boys who didn’t want to go to school with people like her.

    The other thing McNamaraleft out, perhaps under a word limit, is the inequality of arrest and prison sentencing. The list of states which restrict or deny voting rights after release from prison overlaps, as might be imagined, with the list of states where the rights of voters of color are (or were) still protected.

  • Dockovich

    The author left out the horrible consequences Paula Deen faced as the result of her ignorant comments, and the wild media frenzy created by the George Zimmerman case. Both are evidence of our society’s disgust with Racism–to the point where we’ve become fanatics against it. Ignorance and racism will always exist in some form, it’s how we react to it. If an old Southern lady that sells cookware using a racist term is your evidence for outrage, it just doesn’t fly.

TOP