By Charles Ellison for the Philadelphia Tribune
It was one of the worst weeks in the history of Black politics — a week in which Washington was rife with symbolism over the state of Black political influence. Legendary, larger-than-life South African national father Nelson Mandela lay critically ill in a Pretoria hospital bed as President Obama made his trip to the African continent. Meanwhile, back home in the United States, Black political power was taking massive, and what some observers described as near-fatal blows.
The Supreme Court issued a series of bruising decisions that put the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and affirmative action on virtual life support. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al. Justice Anthony Kennedy, once again a critical swing vote and assigned to write the majority opinion, relied on the 1978 Bakke decision to affirm that “[a] university is not permitted to define diversity as ‘some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its race or ethnic origin.’” A day later the court dropped another bomb on the Civil Rights Movement as it essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Writing for the majority in the case, Chief Justice John Roberts, who since the Reagan administration had spent his entire legal career targeting the VRA, coolly penned that “[t]here is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
In contrast, days later the Court put another peculiar spin on civil rights. Majority opinions in the high court were striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (known as the DOMA and signed into law by President Bill Clinton) in United States v. Windsor and calling California’s Proposition 8 measure on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in Hollingsworth v. Perry. That previous week, the court also managed to strike down Arizona’s voter ID law in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. In a span of days, the LGBT and Latino communities found their political fortunes rise, with Latinos encouraged by passage of immigration reform in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Black politics seemed to slip into a coma.
Black elected officials, while attempting to strike defiant tones in a string of sobering statements, struggled to paint the VRA and affirmative action decisions as not confined to African Americans alone. When asked what the VRA decision meant for the future of Black politics, the Congressional Black Caucus did not respond to the Tribune by press time. “Fighting for the right to vote and protecting it for all Americans has always been a priority for the Congressional Black Caucus,” said CBC Chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in an earlier statement. “We are committed to finding a bipartisan legislative solution that ensures every eligible voter has their voice heard in our democracy.”
National Black Caucus of State Legislators President Joe Armstrong, a Democratic legislator from Tennessee, also stuck to the same script when responding to the Tribune, carefully avoiding the question of what these decisions might mean for Black political influence in the 21st century and emphasizing that they hurt “all Americans.”
“We are responding with the force of numerous voices on one accord and swift, coordinated action with our allies to rectify the harm the Supreme Court has caused,” said Armstrong.
But respected Philadelphia political strategist William R. Miller IV, founder of Philly-based firm Ross Associates, puts it much more bluntly. Miller argues that as the Supreme Court “relegates us to a permanent underclass, we remain passive.” He fears there is no real strategy to mobilize African Americans around critical issues.
“[It’s] a blatant disregard for our well being in many ways. I attribute this to the lack of leadership in our community across the board. We have lost our voice,” argues Miller. “Our leaders have either been co-opted, corrupted, discredited, or killed; leaving us without the capacity to effectively articulate a meaningful vision for our people.”
There is an emerging view that a significant shift occurred in American politics, whereby the traditional Black political agenda was both assaulted and discarded while the Latino and LGBT agendas found new life. “Agenda priorities are being swapped,” said a longtime advocate with ties to all three political communities who did not want to be identified. “The American political system is simply following American culture by giving preferential political treatment to Latinos, gays and lesbians.”
“That’s not an accident. Both groups are exploding into the voting blocs everybody wants a piece of. And no one wants to be on their bad side.”
The source’s point suggests that the court’s decisions, which must be rooted in sound legal reasoning, are actually driven by political realities beyond Washington, D.C. Critics of the decisions find a lack of clear jurisprudence and an instance where a conservative Supreme Court that regularly blasts “judicial activism” found an opportunity to be very activist — leaving African Americans with the tab. But the rulings also reveal a rather politically-savvy Roberts Court closely following twists and turns in public opinion. Poll after poll shows Americans increasingly tolerant of same-sex marriage. The two major political parties are also going out of their way to compete for a growing Hispanic population, which will translate into valuable votes in future elections.
In the meantime, polls show increasingly dubious national attitudes towards key achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. An ABC/Washington Post poll found 76 percent of Americans were opposed to affirmative action in college admissions (while a Public Religion Research Institute poll discovered 68 percent supported “the principles” behind affirmative action). And despite lack of polling on the Voting Rights Act, Republican strategists and legislators have been able to use controversial issues such as imagined voter fraud to galvanize support for voter suppression laws in a number of states, including Pennsylvania.
Still, former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff (who made history as the first African American holding that position), argues that it’s not as bad as it seems. Groff contends that Black political leadership will simply have to “follow a new roadmap.”
“I don’t think the decisions are a result of waning Black political influence, in fact I think it is the exact opposite,” Groff observes. “The election and re-election of Barack Obama, the election of Michael Hancock as Mayor of Denver, Alvin Brown as Mayor of Jacksonville, Deval Patrick as Governor of Massachusetts and other legislative leadership roles, like the Speaker of House in Oklahoma, being held by African Americans show that African Americans are not losing political influence.”
“Latino numbers are increasing, but that doesn’t mean that we fade away politically.”
Former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, who switched from Democrat to Republican after a failed bid for governor, also urges caution in any analysis of Black political influence. “It is a misreading of these rulings to interpret them as some greater sensitivity toward gays than Blacks, or some weighting of one group’s interests as more pressing than the other,” argues Davis, who is a lawyer by training. “Whatever you think of these rulings, they are really about the scope of federal v. state authority: Justice Kennedy’s view is that states should have more leeway to regulate their election practices, as opposed to Washington, and that states ought to determine what is or isn’t a marriage, as opposed to Congress doing so.”
“Those are serious, entirely consistent positions that shouldn’t be dismissed by fixating on the politics and who is celebrating these rulings.”
While cautious about rumors of waning Black political power, Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie is also convinced that the rulings are problematic for African Americans. “The VRA decision in particular reinforces the idea that the struggle for Black equality is a thing of the past. Chief Justice Roberts was extremely clear in saying so. The challenge for Blacks going forward is to convincingly frame inequality in terms of current racism, not in terms of historic prejudice. Clearly, the court is less convinced of the latter.”