Last week, the Supreme Court issued rulings limiting some of the 1960s-era actions to help America overcome racial animus that has characterized our nation’s history to this point.
Some declared victory. Others were critical of the court. I’ll leave both to other columnists.
My big takeaway is that we’re making progress toward a racism-free society, and that’s a good thing.
Abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.” It is a quote that President Obama has used and made a theme of his second inauguration address.
Racism in the United States certainly still exists, but no sane person would suggest it is anything close to what existed in the 1960’s and earlier. The further you go back, the worse it gets. There are even comments from Abraham Lincoln that we won’t print.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government started taking aggressive actions to alleviate racism. This included forced desegregation of schools, busing students to eliminate the effects of de facto segregation, affirmative action in college admissions, and the Voting Rights Act.
In many of these cases, laws formally put different races and different states onto different grounds. That would typically run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the Supreme Court allowed these policies to exist because of the circumstances facing the nation.
In the case of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court agreed that this was constitutional as “exceptional conditions can justify legislative measures not otherwise appropriate.”
Chief Justice John Roberts cited that quote in the court’s decision overturning part of the Voting Rights Act last week. He then explained the change in circumstances, citing the voting rates of racial groups and commentary from the United States Congress. In contrast, the laws passed by Congress haven’t changed, and that necessitated action according to the Supreme Court.
This is a trend we can expect to continue. Over time, as racism dissipates, policies like affirmative action not only become less necessary but will reach a point where they cause more problems than they solve.
Our nation can and should have good-faith discussions about where we are at and when these policies should be phased out. It is a question of when, not if.
Sadly, good-faith discussions aren’t a specialty of our public officials and political commentators, who tend to prefer demagoguery and name-calling to serious discussion.
It has had an impact.
A 2006 study joined by Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely found that whites are likely to understate their recognition of an individual’s race and will even avoid mentioning it when attempting to provide a physical description of an individual to an African American.
On the other side, President Obama has avoided the issue of race as much as possible. This has earned the frustration of some leaders in the African American community, including Rev. Jesse Jackson’s famously vulgar commentary. The New York Times simply notes Obama has “steered clear of putting race front and center in his administration.”
Obama’s few attempts to address the issue at all have backfired. These included his commentary on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass., and his subtly invoking race as a reason Pennsylvania voters might not vote for him.
Attorney General Eric Holder famously characterized this situation by calling the United States “a nation of cowards” that are unwilling to discuss race and racial issues.
That said, we do need a discussion. However, no real discussion will ever occur until all parties involved agree to accept one another as rational, good-faith actors with a common goal — a racism-free society.
That means a rhetorical disarmament of sorts.
I believe this is possible and can come as soon as our leaders are willing to lay aside the fights of the past and act in good faith.
Here is to hoping it happens sooner rather than later.