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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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June 22, 2015 1

What Should We Tell Our Children About Charleston?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we grieve, protest and fur­ther inves­ti­gate the hor­rific mur­der of nine African Amer­i­can parish­ioners at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, many peo­ple are ask­ing: What should we tell the children?

Par­ents, fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers are some­times uneasy about dis­cussing issues of vio­lence and injus­tice with chil­dren because they want to pro­tect them from ter­ri­ble and scary top­ics. How­ever, it is impor­tant that chil­dren have a lan­guage for dis­cussing the unfair­ness and injus­tice they see in the world and that as adults, we model that these con­ver­sa­tions are ones we are will­ing to engage in as we assure them that we are work­ing to coun­ter­act injustice.

Except for very young chil­dren, it is impor­tant to raise the issue with chil­dren. It is likely that with online access and the 24/7 hour news cycle, many young peo­ple have already heard about it and may be look­ing for an oppor­tu­nity to learn more. In talk­ing with chil­dren about emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing top­ics, remem­ber to:

  • Give them the time and space to express their feel­ings (what­ever those feel­ings are) and actively lis­ten with empa­thy and compassion.
  • Find out what they already know, clar­ify any mis­in­for­ma­tion they have and answer their ques­tions. If you don’t know the answer, be hon­est about that and find out the answer together.
  • In an age-appropriate way and using lan­guage they can under­stand, share your own thoughts, feel­ings and spe­cific val­ues about the topic.
  • Give youth infor­ma­tion about what is being done to make things safe and what actions are tak­ing place to coun­ter­act the injustice.

Here are spe­cific talk­ing points you may want to cover with young people:

Words and sym­bols matter

We have heard that the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, told racist jokes and spewed biased ide­ol­ogy. A con­tem­po­rary of Roof’s said “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seri­ously like that.” Hate has the poten­tial to esca­late and the Pyra­mid of Hate illus­trates how biased behav­iors and attitudes—when left unchallenged—can lead to more seri­ous acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias-motivated vio­lence such as the one per­pe­trated in Charleston. If those atti­tudes, beliefs and behav­iors were ques­tioned and addressed, per­haps there would have been dif­fer­ent out­comes and those nine lives would not have been taken.

Sym­bols are forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that con­vey impor­tant mes­sages to chil­dren about what we value, what is impor­tant and what kind of soci­ety we want to cre­ate. Hate sym­bols, espe­cially when dis­sem­i­nated and per­va­sive, com­mu­ni­cate that hate and bias are accept­able. Roof had patches on his jacket of flags of regimes in South African and Rhode­sia that enforced the vio­lent white minor­ity rule. He was also seen in sev­eral pho­tos with a Con­fed­er­ate flag, which has come to sym­bol­ize racial hatred and big­otry. Iron­i­cally, the flag is still dis­played in South Carolina’s state­house grounds in Colum­bia and activists and elected offi­cials have been press­ing for its removal for years.

Racism is sys­temic and can be overcome

While Roof was not a for­mal mem­ber of a white suprema­cist orga­ni­za­tion, he espoused white supremacy ide­ol­ogy that is preva­lent, online and world­wide. In address­ing this topic with young peo­ple, we need to give them hope and inspi­ra­tion by show­ing them that we have come a long way on issues of race and other social jus­tice issues by push­ing for leg­is­la­tion, edu­cat­ing peo­ple and tak­ing action. At the same time, it is also impor­tant that we con­nect the dots so that young peo­ple under­stand that issues such as school seg­re­ga­tion, racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and vot­ing rights are not indi­vid­ual acts but are part of a larger sys­tem and that if soci­etal change is going to take place, the solu­tions also need to be systemic.

Activism makes a difference

Since the mur­ders last week, there have been protests across the coun­try and in Charleston and Colum­bia, SC specif­i­cally call­ing pub­lic offi­cials to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag as a first step. On Sun­day, in a mov­ing demon­stra­tion of empa­thy and con­nec­tion, church bells across Charleston tolled for nine min­utes to sym­bol­ize the nine vic­tims. We know that our nation has a long his­tory of activism that has brought about sig­nif­i­cant social change–from mar­riage equal­ity to immi­gra­tion reform and the recent “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment. One of the most impor­tant prin­ci­ples we can con­vey to our chil­dren is that their voices and actions make a dif­fer­ence and will help to build a bet­ter world.

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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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