Blacks] "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. - Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1857)
So, there you have it. After much anticipation the United States Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in many respects left the law toothless in the enforcement of protections against discriminatory behavior toward African-Americans and language minorities. That sinister chuckle you hear ringing in your ear is that of the late Chief Justice Roger Taney who ruled infamously in the Dred Scott decision. Upon Taney’s death it was reported that abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote to President Lincoln, “Providence has given us a victory.” The Roberts Court has reinvigorated the spirit of Roger Taney with its trio of opinions this week on affirmative action, workplace discrimination and voting rights.
This is truly a transformational week in America and should lay rest to the nonsense that the election of the nation’s first African-American president ushered in the era of post-racial nirvana. The same forces at work during the Taney era, albeit with the complicity of some wayward, confused and downright ignorant African-Americans, and a bit more sophisticated, are doing double-time today and working tirelessly to dismantle the infrastructure of justice and equal opportunity. The skill and venom being displayed is illustrative of the degree to which the very real shift in the nation’s demographics has triggered panic and a backlash not seen since post-Reconstruction.
The level of resistance to the sharing of the full American promise with African-Americans and other racial minorities is breathtaking. The climate in our nation is so poisonous today that it is hard to reflect upon or even believe that there was a period when this country was moving to the fulfillment of the principles the Founders evoked, if not fully embraced, upon independence. In hindsight, the 1960s were a remarkable period when through sheer determination and bloodshed our country was being pushed to do the right thing. Don’t get me wrong. It was a brief period but a period of change nonetheless and one that a southern President presided over. How far have we abandoned the principles of justice and equality? In today’s poisonous politics programs like Head Start would never make it into law, and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act would never make it out of committee in the House. And for that matter, a Thurgood Marshall, who won 29 of 32 cases he argued before the high Court as a civil rights litigator, would never get confirmed to the Supreme Court.
What we lose sight of is that affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act were never government interventions African-Americans wanted; they were necessary measures because our constitutional rights were trampled and are still mauled. There is no “equal protection under the law.” Why else would we need congressional action when the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment supposedly make us rightful heirs to the American promise? The truth is that we continue to be assigned second-class status despite Oprah and all the other trinkets of progress that are trotted out as evidence that racism no longer exists. What’s even more insidious is the degree to which the highest court in the land is doing the bidding of the very forces that seek to preserve white privilege.
It is pretty apparent to me that the subtext is fear and maybe even paranoia that is driving this resistance. From a congressman shouting at the President of the United States, who happens to be Black, during a nationally televised speech and a Chief Justice who bungles the administering of the oath of office during an Inauguration to the resurgence of hate groups and bias attacks. America is running scared. And the consequences for African-Americans is equally scary: mass incarceration, “stop and frisk,” easy access to firearms and gun violence run amok, disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of Black boys in schools, and hyper-joblessness among many policy driven landmines exploding in the Black community. The fever might be low-grade but it is deadly nonetheless.
African-Americans have always been pacified by the assurance that things are getting better and shown just enough progress for us to hold out hope. And by and large we still believed the law and the courts would always right the wrongs. It is a hope that has faded into oblivion. The promissory note that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced during his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago this August has accrued so much interest that America is not capable or willing to meet its moral obligation. The Supreme Court failed to make payment this week.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.