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July 15, 2015

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

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

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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