Racial Discrimination

Ferguson and the America We Need to Build

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

An unarmed teenager gunned down in the street. Peaceful protesters attacked in a military-style assault. Journalists tear-gassed and arrested to prevent them from covering the actions of government officials. This is not the America to which we aspire.

Many Americans are both angry and appalled at the actions taken by law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Missouri, this week. These actions do not reflect a commitment to the Constitution or to the principles of equal justice under the law and freedom of the press. We applaud the Department of Justice for undertaking an investigation into the violence, and we are grateful that state officials have stepped in to institute a more sensible law enforcement presence. We encourage state and federal officials to continue monitoring the situation and to intervene as necessary to prevent further civil rights violations.

At the center of this controversy is a dead teenager and a grieving family. We recognize that the pain and outrage felt by so many people is grounded in the fact that this kind of killing of young men of color happens far too often. Part of the tragedy is that a killing like this is not surprising. If our commitment to equality and human dignity is to have real meaning, we cannot continue to tolerate conditions that require so many parents to teach their children how to live through a chance encounter with law enforcement.

In the long run, our elected officials must grapple with many complex policy questions, including racial disparities in the administration of justice. Today we support community leaders who are demanding accountability.

PFAW Foundation

James Crow, Jr., Esquire and the Moneyed Assault on Voting Rights

At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this Wednesday, Reverend Al Sharpton made the case that people of color are facing a new generation of Jim Crow-type laws.  “Jim Crow had a son,” Sharpton said, a son who writes voter suppression, Stand Your Ground, and stop-and-frisk laws.  His name?  “James Crow, Jr., Esquire.” 

At Rosa Park’s funeral in 2005, Sharpton made similar comments:

The one we’ve got to battle is James Crow, Jr., Esquire. He’s a little more educated. He’s a little slicker. He’s a little more polished. But the results are the same. He doesn’t put you in the back of the bus. He just puts referendums on the ballot to end affirmative action where you can’t go to school. He doesn’t call you a racial name, he just marginalizes your existence.

A case in point of the slicker, more polished push for policy that disproportionately harms people of color is the assault on voting rights in North Carolina. The Institute for Southern Studies released the results of an investigation yesterday finding that mega-donor Art Pope has played an important, if largely hidden, role in making restrictive voting laws in the state a reality.  Whether through funding conservative think tanks disseminating lies about voter fraud or by financially backing Republican elected officials involved in pushing the sweeping anti-voter law, Pope’s influence in bringing about what The Nation described as “the country’s worst voter suppression law” is clear.

At PFAW, we often write about the danger of individual Americans’ voices being drowned out by the roar of moneyed interests in our democracy.  Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate lobbyists can quietly help get Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws on the books.  Art Pope’s support of North Carolina’s draconian voting law shows one more example of why the struggle to protect individual voices and votes in a democracy being flooded by the money of wealthy special interests is an uphill battle – but a battle unquestionably worth fighting.

PFAW

John Lewis and a new generation of movement leaders

"And I say to all the young people, you must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be for all of us . . . I'm not tired. I'm not weary. I'm not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight. And you must fight."
PFAW Foundation

50 Years Later, John Lewis Returns to Podium as Sole Surviving March Speaker

Recently The New York Times reminded us that Representative John Lewis is still marching on Washington, 50 years later.

On August 28, 1963, as the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis took the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Tomorrow, as the 73-year-old representative from Georgia's 5th congressional district, he will commemorate the 50th anniversary of those remarks.

Representative Lewis returns to the podium as the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington.

A half century ago he was the torchbearer for youth leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. The message he delivered still hits home for youth leaders like those of Young People For.

Here at YP4 we know that “justice for all” is an expansive idea that includes pushing for and protecting civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT equality and more. It means rededicating ourselves to the promise of vibrant, safe, democratic communities. It means fighting for a country where our voices are not drowned out by massive corporate spending to influence our elections. It means standing up to groups like ALEC which push extreme laws threatening the wellbeing of our communities, such as the “Stand Your Ground” laws that YP4 alumni like [Phillip] Agnew – leader of the Dream Defenders in Florida – have been fighting to change.

In other words, we know that “justice for all” is a promise that has yet to be realized.

Join us tomorrow as Representative Lewis and others once again bring the struggle for jobs, justice, and freedom back to the nation's capital. Check out MLKDREAM50 for information on the full week of events.

PFAW Foundation

Still Marching for Justice, Health, and Black Women’s Lives

Guest post from Reverend Dr. Geraldine Pemberton, Assistant Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council. 

As a 74 year old retired nurse, I can remember the original March on Washington well.  I wasn’t able to be there in person that day, but many of my family members were.  After marching with Dr. King and more than 200,000 other Americans, they were inspired to come home and fight for justice.

I myself am of the Jim Crow era.  The injustices that Dr. King described that day as the “chains of discrimination” were injustices I faced first-hand.  My father, who was born in North Carolina, would take my family down from Philadelphia for visits to his home state.  He would try to prepare us as much as he could, but it was always overwhelming.  I remember that once we passed the Mason-Dixon line, we couldn’t use most bathrooms.  We would have to use outhouses behind gas stations instead.

Today I can see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we still have to go.  I have spent much of my life fighting the injustices that drove the first March on Washington, especially health disparities facing women of color.  Justice, I have learned, is a very big umbrella that must include equality for women.  A just society has to be one that values women’s voices and fights back against health disparities that threaten black women’s lives.

Twenty years after that march, I went to another major event that inspired people from all over to drop what they were doing and travel across the country – the 1983 Spelman College conference on women’s health, which birthed what is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative.  My friend and I saw a flyer for it but didn’t think we could afford to go.  We maxed out our credit cards and drove down to Atlanta. Thousands of women showed up for the conference – young women, older women, women with children, women who had hitchhiked there.  We just showed up - we had to be there.

That conference unfolded into a lifetime of work in pursuit of improving the health outcomes of African American women.  As a former Director of Nursing and a current Health Committee Director for an alliance of Black clergy in Philadelphia, I know that women of color need improved access to care and greater provider sensitivity.  Women need more information on the diseases that affect us most.  And as a 74 year old Philadelphian, I’m still fighting for women’s health and justice.  This year I am organizing health forums at churches throughout the city to give women more information about diseases, healthy living, and greater access to health services though the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as “Obamacare.”

The first health forum is this weekend – fifty years after the March on Washington.  In so many ways, we are still marching.

PFAW Foundation

Young People For Supports Florida Dream Defenders’ Courageous Sit-In

In what the Miami Herald is calling the “longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory,” a group of more than sixty young people called the Dream Defenders came to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office last Tuesday and have not left. 

Arriving at the Florida Capitol just a few days after George Zimmerman was acquitted, the group is pushing for a special legislative session to take up a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act which would repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law and address racial profiling, the school-to prison pipeline, and more. Among the many young people in Gov. Scott’s office is Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew, a 2005 graduate of PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) leadership development program, as well as eight to ten other current or former YP4 Fellows. 

Agnew told the Miami Herald that the work is broader than their specific demands: 

“It’s also about a paradigm shift,” Agnew said. “It’s about empowering the next generation.”

PFAW Foundation has been helping support the courageous young people at the Capitol in any way we can, from providing administrative and financial support – including meals – to sending video cameras to help document their experiences.  Young People For Director Joy Lawson highlighted the sit-in in a Huffington Post op-ed and is leading a powerful photo campaign collecting statements of support for the Dream Defenders. 

Together, we are showing the Dream Defenders, and the country, that young people are standing with them in this fight.
 

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court to Review Voting Rights Act

A lynchpin of protecting the right to vote may fall before the altar of "states' rights."
PFAW Foundation

A Call to Action: Restore Equal Employment Opportunities in America

Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.

However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.

All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).

Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.

When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.

PFAW

Supreme Court Denies Access to Justice in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

In yet another decision highlighting the Roberts Court's tendency to favor corporations over individual citizens, the Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for employees and consumers challenging their contracts to seek justice in court.

In Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, Antonio Jackson filed suit in a Nevada federal district court against his employer, Rent-A-Center, claiming that he had suffered racial discrimination and retaliation. Rent-A-Center tried to dismiss the lawsuit and force Jackson to move the dispute to arbitration, as was required by Jackson’s employment contract. The district court agreed with the company, but the Ninth Circuit court reversed, holding that when a person opposing arbitration claims that he or she could not have meaningfully consented to the agreement, the question of whether the original contract was fair must be decided by a court.

In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's ruling, saying that Mr. Jackson failed to specifically challenge the arbitration provision in the agreement that requires challenges to the validity of the entire agreement to also be decided by an arbitrator. Previously, if an employee challenged certain aspects of a contract that included a binding arbitration clause but not necessarily the arbitration clause itself, the dispute would go to the arbitrators. However, the Court's decision expanded upon that to hold that even if an employee argues that the entire contract – including the arbitration clause – was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable, that person is still denied access to the courts unless he specifically and separately challenged the arbitration clause. In other words, arguing that the entire contract is illegitimate is not enough.

Treated as contracts, arbitration clauses waive one’s rights to go to court, meaning that any disputes must instead be settled through private arbitration. Often built into the fine print of a contract, these clauses are very common in the consumer context and usually there is little choice but to sign or not sign the contract. Most people at some point or another will become bound to an agreement with an arbitration clause, perhaps as part of a cell phone contract, a health insurance plan, or an employment contract. Although they are ostensibly for the benefit of both parties, they are primarily drafted to protect companies from litigation, as it is often too expensive for a claimant to even initiate the arbitration proceedings, much less pay the arbitrator’s hourly fees. In a telling signal of what a majority of the Court today thinks about these practical obstacles for ordinary Americans, Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, dismissed people who sign arbitration agreements as “stupid.”

Forced arbitration is an increasing problem as these clauses become standard parts of everyday contracts, but they are particularly troubling in civil rights cases such as this one. Mr. Jackson’s claim that his employer discriminated against him based on his race was brought under section 1981 of the Civil Rights Acts – legislation that was passed specifically to ensure that victims of such discrimination would have access to the federal courts. Instead, because Mr. Jackson signed an employment agreement - an agreement that he had little choice but to sign if he wanted the job - he is now precluded from asserting a violation of those rights and seeking justice in court.

As confirmed in Justice Stevens’ dissent, neither party even asked the Court for such a heightened standard of pleading, showing how once again, the Roberts Court is going out of its way to protect corporations and prevent real citizens - workers and consumers - from being able to access the federal courts.
 

PFAW

Bork by Any Other Name

In the two days since Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul restated his long-held opposition to the portions of 1964’s Civil Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination by private businesses, members of his party have been keeping their distance and tripping over themselves in the rush to declare their allegiance to the landmark civil rights law.

But, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus points out, there was a time not long ago when Republican Senators were faced with someone with views very similar to Paul’s–and, instead of distancing themselves from him, tried to put him on the Supreme Court.

Rand Paul and Robert Bork, Marcus writes, “are ideological soul mates.”
For those whose perspective on the rejected Bork nomination is that it was such a skewed pummeling that it led to the creation of a new verb -- Borking -- here’s a reminder. Writing in The New Republic in 1963 about the proposed civil rights act, Bork inveighed against a principle of "unsurpassed ugliness” -- not of racism, mind you, but of the notion of compelling private property owners to stop discriminating. Sound familiar? The next year, Bork lit into the proposed bans on discrimination in both employment and public accommodations, saying they would “compel association where it is not desired,” and citing “serious constitutional problems” with the measure.


Bork renounced those views publicly in 1973, during his nomination for solicitor general. Paul’s about-face took less than 24 hours.


It might seem unfair to bring up a 23-year-old nomination battle in the debate over today’s policies, but some in the Republican Party have done just that, using Bork’s Senate defeat as a recurring Supreme Court talking point.

Just last week, for instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who voted to confirm Bork in 1987) used the Bork-as-martyr defense to excuse all GOP attacks on Elena Kagan.

This week, McConnell weighed in on the Paul brouhaha, issuing a statement extolling the “landmark achievement” of the Civil Rights Act.

If Republicans want to keep on bringing up the Bork nomination, they should spend some time remembering why Bork met with such an unfriendly reception.

For a reminder, check out People For’s 1987 TV Ad on Bork, narrated by Gregory Peck:


 

PFAW

NAMUDNO In the Supreme Court

This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, a case involving a small municipal district in Austin, Texas seeking to invalidate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - one of the most important civil rights laws in American history.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Congress finally acted to prevent discriminatory tactics designed to prevent minorities from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Section 5, in particular, is the centerpiece of the Act, and requires certain covered jurisdictions where voting discrimination has been the most flagrant to seek a preclearance from the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the federal court in DC for any voting related changes. According to the statute, preclearance will be given as long as the proposed change does not have the purpose or the effect of denying or infringing on the right to vote because of one’s race or color.

In this case, the party seeking to invalidate Section 5 is a municipal utility district in Travis County, Texas, that conducts elections to select the members of its board of directors. Because the State of Texas is a covered jurisdiction, the district is subject to the preclearance requirements of Section 5, and sought relief under the Act’s bailout provision in federal court in the days following the reauthorization of the Act in 2006. Alternatively, the utility district sought to invalidate the provision if it could not bailout from its requirements. It failed on both counts in the courts below.

Today’s arguments confirm that Justice Kennedy again holds the deciding vote on whether the Court will weaken or invalidate a provision upheld by the very same Court four times in the past.

To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer needed because racial discrimination no longer exists, as evidenced by the election of the country’s first African American president, look at the facts. Because of Section 5’s sunset provisions, Congress was required to re-examine whether the statute is needed and last conducted an examination of this type in 2006. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings over 10 months and received testimony from over 90 witnesses, including state and federal officials, experts and private citizens. And although they concluded that significant progress had been made, they recognized that “[d]iscrimination today is more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965” and concluded that discrimination continues to result in “a diminishing of the minority community’s ability to fully participate in the electoral process and to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” Congress voted 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate that, among other things, Section 5 was still necessary.

We hope that Justice Kennedy will remember the extensive record finding Congress performed in 2006 and remember his words earlier this year when he wrote in Bartlett v. Strickland, “Still, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions. . .”


Deborah Liu is General Counsel to People For the American Way, which is a defendant-intervenor in the case.

PFAW

Supreme Court Chips Away at Voting Rights Protections

Twenty four hours after thousands celebrated “Bloody Sunday” earlier this week – a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery where civil rights marchers including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) were attacked and brutally beaten by Alabama state and local police, but ultimately led to the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the Supreme Court undermined some of the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.

I was troubled, in particular by this reference in a NY Times article about Richard Pildes, an expert whose views the Justices relied on in Mondays’ decision, who, according to the Times, “said that current events, including the fact that both major political parties are led by African-Americans, had complicated the legal landscape, creating ‘tremendous pressure on a statute that was primarily structured for an earlier era in which blacks were completely excluded from office.’ “

There’s no disputing the fact that much progress has been made, but even today, we’re a far cry from the post-racial world that MLK described in his famous I Have a Dream speech. To it's credit, even the Supreme Court recognized that racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. This issue is not simply about having an African American President or leader in the Republican Party. This is a larger issue of opportunity for all citizens and one federal election has not summarily changed the reality existing in this country still. There’s no African American representing an overwhelmingly white district in the House, and no African American governors representing a Southern state (there’s only been one in history – Douglas Wilder of Virginia).

I recognize that there’s been much progress, but there’s more work to be done and vital protections such as those in the VRA are still necessary.
 

PFAW

Voting Rights Opponent Appeals to Supreme Court

 As expected, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (NAMUDNO), a public utility district in Travis County, Tex., filed a direct appeal yesterday with the Supreme Court from a unanimous ruling last May by a three-judge federal district court rejecting NAMUDNO's claims that it is exempt from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and, in the alternative, that Section 5 is unconstitutional.

People For and a number of other parties intervened as defendants in the district court in order to help defend the constitutionality of Section 5. Section 5 of the VRA requires all or part of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to have their voting procedures pre-approved, or "pre-cleared," by the Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court in Washington before they can be changed.

For more information, view People For's statement on the district court ruling. You can also view the district court's ruling here.

PFAW