In 2006, SPEA alum Tavis Smiley—with a team of esteemed contributors—laid out a national plan to address the ten most crucial issues facing African Americans. The Covenant became a No.1 New York Times bestseller, yet the issues persist. Now, in The Covenant with Black America – Ten Years Later (SmileyBooks, 2016), Smiley presents the original action plan alongside new data from SPEA to underscore the work that remains to be done.IU alumnus Tavis Smiley and SPEA faculty members release new book on plight of black Americans
Here, Lisa Blomgren Amsler, J.D., Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service, addresses the original Covenant VI.
Claiming Our Democracy, Ten Years LaterIn 2008, the United States elected its first African American president, Barack Hussein Obama, giving hope that the nation had emerged from its long history of racism. Voting rates rose for Black Americans, surpassing the rates for non-Hispanic white Americans in the 2012 presidential election.
However, since 2006 there have been massive changes in law placing our democracy in jeopardy. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibited limits on campaign spending by nonprofit organizations, opening the floodgates to massive unregulated spending. At present, just 158 families “overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male” have contributed half of all campaign contributions toward the 2016 presidential election.
In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 as an unconstitutional coverage formula for Section 5’s requirements that certain states and local governments obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before changes in state election law. This effectively released states to adopt laws that had been forbidden through preclearance under the Act.
Without preclearance, voters have to litigate laws after they go into effect and reduce voting rights. Since Shelby, a number of states, mostly those with Republican majorities in state legislatures, have modified election laws. Texas implemented a photo ID law, which affected voters in local elections and the March 2014 primaries. North Carolina passed a law that required photo ID, reduced early voting, and reduced a registration window used disproportionately by African American voters to register and vote on the same day. Alabama recently targeted 31 Department of Motor Vehicles offices where people might obtain a form of voter ID for closure; this will leave eight out of ten counties with the highest percentages of registered non-white voters without a DMV to obtain a voter ID.
Since Shelby, one study reported ten voting changes in seven states that have raised concerns about voting discrimination. Because there is no longer central recordkeeping for preclearance, it is difficult to track the changes and stop them; each is individually subject to challenge in litigation after the fact. Some states are pushing back. California just enacted a state law that automatically registers all eligible voters who have a driver’s license or state ID unless they opt out.
Election and voting developments are exacerbating an existing inequity in representation by elected officials of the same race that the VRA was intended in part to address. Despite an increase in the diversity of Congress, Pew notes that only 35 percent of Black Americans are represented by someone of the same race.
Underrepresentation occurs at the local level, too. African Americans could see better local representation with more district (rather than at-large) local elections and elections held in tandem with national elections. Instead, there is minority vote dilution through at-large elections and cracking—multi-member districts that split a single heavily minority-majority district into two barely minority-majority districts—making it hard to convert voting power into wins. There is also packing, which is over concentrating minorities in a single district to reduce number of representatives. State and local laws that require at-large voting instead of voting by district, and redistricting or gerrymandering either to gather all Black voters into a single district or divide them so as to preclude an effective majority that can elect a Black representative, mean that African Americans are significantly underrepresented in state or local legislative bodies.
The results of underrepresentation include systemic racist practices in policing, prosecutorial, and judicial functions as illustrated in Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson’s system created an incentive for police to arrest for minor traffic infractions that generated fees and fines when predominately poor Black residents of Ferguson received a ticket or failed to show up in municipal court; arrests turned into contempt of court and what some term debtors prison practices. The Department of Justice is also looking into the disparate impact based on race of a public school discipline system that feeds young Black males into juvenile justice and criminal justice systems, ultimately resulting in voting disenfranchisement upon conviction of a felony.
In response to growing evidence of systemic bias in the criminal justice system and absence of effective voice in the political system, a new civil rights movement has arisen. Born when the unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was shot dead and a predominately white jury found it justified by Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, the movement spread through social media as Black Lives Matter. The speed at which smart phone videos of police shootings of unarmed Black men travel social media and protests occur has been accelerating. As the beatings in Selma on Bloody Sunday galvanized a nation to support passage of the VRA, so, too, the organizers of Black Lives Matter hope to generate public support for legislative and electoral change. Increasingly, the prospect of litigation is prompting local governments to discipline police for excessive use of force and to reach financial settlements with grieving families. However, the practices are so pervasive that commentators say it will take a sea change in police training to alter what is perceived as acceptable use of force.
There has been no substantial progress in passing an amendment that would formalize a constitutional right to vote. Two Democrats proposed a constitutional amendment in 2015. The Democratic National Committee also announced its support. Similarly, despite two different proposals that alternately passed the House and Senate, there has been no progress in empowering residents of the District of Columbia to participate in our national democracy.
In sum, while there have been historic achievements in the election of President Obama and the most diverse Congress in history, there have also been deeply troubling developments. Citizens United gives the rich and white disproportionate financial influence in the electoral system. State election laws with documented disparate impact based on race are making their way through state legislatures and prompting litigation under VRA Section 2 in the absence of effective preclearance limits under Section 5. African Americans are underrepresented in state and local elective office. A disproportionate number of Black voters remain disenfranchised through the criminal justice system and by living in the District of Columbia. And no citizen in the United States has an express constitutional right to vote.