May 2, 2014
How to join a Dream Team

The American Dream is in danger. The Supreme Court has made yet another ruling that reduces the rights of African Americans. And, yes, it affects ALL Americans. Without a doubt.

I am left with hard–but fair–questions that might not have answers. Or answers that are not good.

What has happened to the days when the Supreme Court was a guardian of constitutional rights?

What happened to the Court that protected the rights of African American children to attend non-segregated schools? Or the Court that protected the rights of African Americans to vote? Or protected the rights of all Americans to their “reasonable expectations of privacy”? Or protected the rights the rights of every person placed under arrest?

No one can deny the Court’s courage and brilliance (or that of then-lawyer Thurgood Marshall) in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, which marked the beginning of the Court’s society-changing decisions that protected the rights of criminal defendants, the right of a woman to choose whether to continue a pregnancy, the right of marriage between members of different racial groups, the right to wear an explicit “F*ck the draft” shirt, the right to refuse to fight in Vietnam, and many other rights that we enjoy. It was a constitutional-rights nirvana for America.

The Supreme Court was the Dream Team of protecting constitutional rights!

Not anymore.

The Supreme Court recently decided a truly landmark case about the power of majority voters to take away the rights of minority groups. The Court decided that it could.

Not one of the Court’s finest moments.

On April 22, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Schuette v. BAMN. When I first heard about the decision, I thought it was another blow to affirmative action; just another way that the Court was chipping away at a system that has allowed members of minority groups to receive a college education or find employment.

I read Justice Kennedy’s weak majority opinion about how this case is NOT about affirmative action or about race-conscious preferences. My kneejerk reaction was to think that the Court always denies that a case is about affirmative action though I strongly suspected that it was. Still, I kept reading and, oddly, it kept my attention. And I slowly began to agree that this case might, indeed, not be about affirmative action.

Then I read Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in the Schuette case. I realized Justice Kennedy was right: this case is not about affirmative action. It is about a firmly fundamental right in the United States: the right to meaningful access to and equal representation in the political process.

Affirmative action was just one of the victims of the Court’s decision.

There could be many more victims.

Justice Sotomayor (joined in her dissent by Justice Ginsburg) strongly notes that the majority opinion ignores how the state of Michigan has altered the voting rules causing additional burdens and less representation for members of minority groups. She states:

While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals…

Justice Sotomayor continues by discussing the history of racial discrimination in voting and the fervent and determined efforts of certain state and local governments to prevent racial minorities from voting or otherwise participating in the political process. She recalls:

  • Grandfather clauses
  • Gerrymandering
  • Redistricting
  • Literary tests
  • Moral character requirements
  • Granting permission to political parties to decide who could (and could not) vote in elections.

She even mentions the Alabama legislature that abolished a court when the residing African American judge refused to retire.

The Supreme Court (during its constitutional-rights Dream Team days) struck down these actions as violating the right to equal protection. Today, we have a different Supreme Court: a nightmare Court rather than a dream team!

I could add that other means were also used to prevent African Americans from voting that included intimidation, threats, physical attacks, and lynching. Back to the case…

It seems that there remains a part of the population that will continue to use the political system to oppress minority groups. Justice Sotomayor bravely asserts that the role of judges is to protect and police the process of self-government. The “majority” is not allowed to win by changing the rules or creating rules that disempower the minority group or violate their constitutionally protected rights. An election should not automatically give legitimacy (or a constitutional stamp of approval) to the actions of the majority. And an active, independent, and intelligent judicial system is the proper guardian of our constitutional rights.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court shirked its responsibilities and allowed the most fundamental of rights of minorities in a democratic society to be weakened by a tyrannical majority. This is truly a bad dream.

What can we do?

Be a part of a new Dream Team!

1. Be actively involved in the political process!

This can be done in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels. Support candidates that you believe work to include all people or have a broad base of support. Alternatively, do not support candidates that are divisive, unsupportive of minority rights, or abuse the political process.

Other ways to get involved are to encourage organizations that work to support the democratic system and diversity. Many organizations need assistance through volunteer efforts or financial support to continue their work. I won’t name any groups (though I definitely have a few that I support!) but just search your conscience and get active with organizations that support values that you believe in.

Of course, running for an elected position is another way to participate. Local elected positions are extremely important and must not be overlooked or have their influence diminished. Local candidates are important at the grassroots level and their impact is felt all the way to the top!

2. Get and stay informed about changes in policies affecting minorities, equality/equal protection, voting rights, or any issue that is important to you.

One sad fact about the changes in local laws and policies is that they are often passed and implemented before the general public is unaware of them. Then it’s too late. Read the newspaper (not just the headlines on page 1, but the back page of the paper.) Go to school board meetings. Attend city council meetings. Subscribe to receive email updates on new laws and policies in your city or county. Tell people about these changes to the laws, policies, and procedures. Talk to your spouse, children, friends or colleagues about new laws or existing laws that might be problematic. Write letters to your representative to voice your opinion about these changes.

3. Speak up!

Follow the lead of Justice Sotomayor and speak of your outrage to laws or policies that undermine any person in the political process or deny equal protection of the laws to any person. Justice Sotomayor took the unprecedented step of reading her dissenting opinion aloud in its entirety. This caught the attention of many people. Of course, some people were angered and offended by this step; others were impressed and empowered. Either way, do not be afraid to voice an opinion about events that you feel strongly about. Be maladjusted to discrimination and inequality!

Will these actions affect the decision of the Supreme Court? Time will tell. But these actions can have a strong impact in the democratic system that is important to all people. Small acts can add up to big changes. This is true for both positive and negative changes. Never overlook the small changes. And always think of the big picture: a fair and free society for all people with liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get the Dream back!

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