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July 15, 2015 1

The Voting Rights Advancement Act: Necessary to Ensure Voting Rights for All

Almost fifty years ago, on August 6, 1965, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed the his­toric Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA), one of the most impor­tant and effec­tive pieces of civil rights leg­is­la­tion ever passed.   In the almost half cen­tury since its pas­sage, the VRA has secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Its suc­cess in elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to full civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in advanc­ing equal polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment is unde­ni­able. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has sup­ported pas­sage of the VRA and every reau­tho­riza­tion since 1965, filed ami­cus briefs urg­ing the Supreme Court to uphold the law, pro­moted aware­ness about the impor­tance of the VRA, and encour­aged the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to use the VRA to pro­tect vot­ing rights for all.

VRA interns for web

The last time Con­gress extended the VRA, it did so after an exhaus­tive exam­i­na­tion of vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and the impact of the VRA – days of hear­ings and thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion. The leg­is­la­tion passed over­whelm­ing: 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 98–0 in the Senate.

Notwith­stand­ing this over­whelm­ing sup­port and exhaustively-documented leg­isla­tive his­tory – and the unde­ni­ably extra­or­di­nary impact of the VRA–a bit­terly divided 5–4 major­ity of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down §4(b) of the VRA (the for­mula to deter­mine which states and polit­i­cal sub­di­vi­sions would have to pre­clear all vot­ing changes) in Shelby County v. Holder , essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the legislation.

Almost imme­di­ately after the deci­sion, states that had been sub­ject to pre­clear­ance over­sight for vot­ing changes began enact­ing laws that threaten to dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­en­fran­chise minor­ity, young, poor, and elderly vot­ers. Texas, for exam­ple, enacted a strict plan that fed­eral courts had pre­vi­ously rejected, find­ing that there was “more evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tory intent than we have space, or need, to address here….Simply put, many His­pan­ics and African Amer­i­cans who voted in the last elec­tions will, because of the bur­dens imposed by SB 14 , likely be unable to vote.”

Texas was not alone in quickly mov­ing to enact unwar­ranted voter ID laws and restric­tions on voter reg­is­tra­tion and early vot­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. In fact, the efforts over the last few years to restrict vot­ing rights around the coun­try are unprece­dented in mod­ern Amer­ica. The United States has not seen such a major leg­isla­tive push to limit vot­ing rights since right after Reconstruction

In Shelby County, the Court invited Con­gress to craft a new for­mula based on its guid­ance. This leg­is­la­tion, the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, has now been intro­duced in both the House and the Sen­ate. The mea­sure would update the cov­er­age for­mula, put in place addi­tional safe­guards for vot­ing, and help ensure that all Amer­i­cans can have their say in our democracy.

As we cel­e­brate the anniver­sary of the VRA, it’s time to leg­is­late, not just commemorate.

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July 3, 2015 2

Yes, Justice Thomas, the Government Can Deprive People of Dignity

The word “dig­nity” appears 30 times in last week’s Supreme Court mar­riage equal­ity case, Oberge­fell v. Hodges. Describ­ing the same-sex cou­ples who aspired to marry, Jus­tice Anthony Kennedy, writ­ing for the 5–4 major­ity, stated:

Their hope is not to be con­demned to live in lone­li­ness, excluded from one of civilization’s old­est insti­tu­tions. They ask for equal dig­nity in the eyes of the law. The Con­sti­tu­tion grants them that right. supreme-court-civil-rights

 

 

 

In a bit­ter dis­sent, Jus­tice Clarence Thomas demurred, stat­ing that “the Con­sti­tu­tion con­tains no ‘dig­nity’ Clause.” He argued that the gov­ern­ment is “inca­pable of bestow­ing dig­nity,” stat­ing flatly that” human dig­nity can­not be taken away by the government.”

Aston­ish­ingly, Jus­tice Thomas then attempted to prove his dubi­ous propo­si­tion by cit­ing two extreme and rep­re­hen­si­ble gov­ern­ment actions that were actu­ally designed to deprive vic­tims of “equal dig­nity under the law” – slav­ery and the incar­cer­a­tion of Amer­i­cans of Japan­ese descent dur­ing World War II:

Slaves did not lose their dig­nity … because the gov­ern­ment allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in intern­ment camps did not lose their dig­nity because the gov­ern­ment con­fined them.

But the gov­ern­ment did not “allow” blacks to be enslaved – the laws of the time facil­i­tated and empow­ered slave own­ers and enforced slavery.

And the Japan­ese Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens League was rightly “appalled” by Jus­tice Thomas’ blind­ness to the impact of the government’s shame­ful and unwar­ranted forcible relo­ca­tion and incar­cer­a­tion of 120,000 Amer­i­cans of Japan­ese descent, the vast major­ity of whom were citizens.

In 1942, just 10 weeks after the sur­prise attack on Pearl Har­bor, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt issued his Exe­cu­tion Order 9066, pro­vid­ing the legal author­ity for this depri­va­tion of lib­erty and dig­nity. Roosevelt’s exec­u­tive action was issued against the back­drop of wide­spread, base­less fears that Amer­i­cans of Japan­ese ances­try might pose a threat to the U.S – anx­i­ety that was cer­tainly fed by a long his­tory of prej­u­dice and xeno­pho­bia direct against Japan­ese Americans.

Those incar­cer­ated in the camps were uprooted from their com­mu­ni­ties, sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies, their homes, and their pos­ses­sions, and lost their per­sonal lib­er­ties and free­doms until the end of the war.

Trag­i­cally, the president’s exec­u­tive order was bol­stered by addi­tional con­gres­sional enact­ments. And when the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of these actions was chal­lenged in two main cases before the U.S. Supreme Court – Hirabayashi v. U.S. andKore­matsu v. United States – the Court held that these clearly dis­crim­i­na­tory actions by the gov­ern­ment were, in fact, jus­ti­fied and constitutional.

Now, 73 years later, the Anti-Defamation League uses the cruel and unwar­ranted wartime treat­ment of Amer­i­cans of Japan­ese descent as a teach­able moment for our nation on the dan­gers of stereo­typ­ing, prej­u­dice, and racial pro­fil­ing. While we can honor and admire indi­vid­u­als that can retain their per­sonal dig­nity under the most adverse con­di­tions, there should be no doubt, Jus­tice Thomas, that the gov­ern­ment can deprive peo­ple of their “equal dignity.”

For­tu­nately, a Supreme Court major­ity has now held that the Con­sti­tu­tion man­dates that same-sex cou­ples are enti­tled to equal treat­ment – and mar­riage equality.

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June 19, 2015 0

Murders in Charleston Again Demonstrate the Tragic Impact of Hate Violence

The hor­ri­ble mur­ders of nine parish­ioners dur­ing a June 17 evening prayer meet­ing at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Car­olina seem like a night­mare.  But they were real – hor­rific and sense­less.  And they were hate crimes.  The nature of the shoot­ings, the spe­cific loca­tion, the tar­geted vic­tims, state­ments allegedly made by the sus­pect, and a Face­book pro­file of the sus­pect wear­ing white suprema­cist sym­bols all indi­cate this tragedy was moti­vated by racial bias.

It is note­wor­thy that these race-based mur­ders hap­pened in one of only five states that has yet to enact a hate crimes law.  The time has come for that to change.

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

Obvi­ously, con­victed mur­der­ers already face the most severe penal­ties under the law in every state.    But hate crimes laws have a sig­nif­i­cance that extends beyond the tougher sen­tences they per­mit.  They are a strong soci­etal response to crimes specif­i­cally intended to intim­i­date the vic­tim and mem­bers of the victim’s com­mu­nity.  By mak­ing mem­bers of minor­ity com­mu­ni­ties fear­ful, angry, and sus­pi­cious of other groups – and of the power struc­ture that is sup­posed to pro­tect them – these mes­sage crimes can dam­age the fab­ric of our soci­ety and frag­ment communities.

The FBI and law enforce­ment offi­cials rec­og­nize the spe­cial impact of hate crimes.  The FBI has been col­lect­ing hate crime data from the 18,000 police agen­cies across the coun­try since 1990.   In 2013, the most recent FBI data avail­able, almost 6,000 hate crimes were reported by over 15,000 police depart­ments – almost one every 90 min­utes of every day.  Race-based hate crimes were most fre­quent, crimes com­mit­ted against gay men and les­bians sec­ond, and religion-based crimes were third most fre­quent, with anti-Jewish crimes a dis­turb­ing 61% of all reported religion-based crimes.

Fed­eral and state hate crime laws are an impor­tant demon­stra­tion that our soci­ety rec­og­nizes the unique impact of hate vio­lence.  45 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia now have enacted hate crime laws, many based on the ADL Model Law drafted in 1981.  The only five states with­out a penalty-enhancing hate crime law are Arkansas, Indi­ana, Geor­gia, Wyoming – and South Carolina.

Attor­ney Gen­eral Lynch has announced that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has opened its own hate crime inves­ti­ga­tion of this ter­ri­ble crime – under fed­eral crim­i­nal civil rights laws, includ­ing the Matthew Shep­ard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act.  That essen­tial fed­eral statute is an impor­tant bul­wark, but it is not a sub­sti­tute for state hate crimes laws.   South Car­olina is in mourn­ing now, as we all are.  One of the most con­struc­tive ways for the state to move for­ward would be to join 45 other states who already have hate crimes laws.

We need to be real­is­tic.  We can­not leg­is­late, reg­u­late, or tab­u­late an end to racism, anti-Semitism, or big­otry.  Com­ple­ment­ing fed­eral and state hate crime laws and pre­ven­tion ini­tia­tives, gov­ern­ments must pro­mote early learn­ing and con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion against bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools and the com­mu­nity.   Strong, inclu­sive laws, and effec­tive responses to hate vio­lence by pub­lic offi­cials and law enforce­ment author­i­ties, how­ever, are essen­tial com­po­nents in deter­ring and pre­vent­ing these crimes.  

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