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DANIELS: Protecting Black Americans' Right to Compete

Lee A. Daniels | 5/23/2013, 9 p.m.
Lee A. Daniels

It's no coincidence that in the next few weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a challenge to affirmative action in higher education and also a challenge to the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Historically speaking, such challenges are what's to be expected when Black Americans prove they are more than fit for American citizenship.

For nearly half a century substantial numbers of Black students at and Black graduates of elite White colleges — such as Barack and Michelle Obama — have proven they match their White counterparts in intelligence, ambition, and determination to contribute to the nation. But, still, the anti-affirmative action propaganda is saturated with thinly-disguised assertions of Black inferiority.

And for nearly half a century, Blacks of voting age have shown an expert understanding of how to play the political game and a profound faith in it. They have not indulged in loony conspiracy theories about the presidents whose policies they oppose, nor supported politicians who spout extremist fantasies about the federal government.

Instead, they've become a bedrock of the Democratic Party coalition and are increasingly ratcheting up the rate at which they turn out to vote. But this commitment to the American political tradition has provoked conservatives to increasingly tawdry neo-Jim Crow schemes in the political arena and continual challenges in the courts in order to limit blacks' access to the ballot box.

The part of the Act under challenge is its Section 5, which requires certain jurisdictions to get permission from the Justice Department or a special federal court before changing voting procedures. Congress re-authorized this "pre-clearance" provision along with the entire act in 2006 after extensive testimony showed many of the jurisdictions were still using such tactics as denying petitions for early voting, or reducing the hours for early voting, or moving polling stations to locations likely to reduce the Black turnout.

The challenges to both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act contend they discriminate against Whites. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia bluntly previewed his opinion during the Court's oral arguments over the latter when he characterized the part of the Act under challenge as "the perpetuation of a racial entitlement" that victimizes Whites.

What both Supreme Court challenges — and Justice Scalia's remark — in their negative way affirm is the fundamental importance of both the policy of affirmative action and the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.

They protect Black Americans' right to compete.

Depriving Black Americans of that right was the major purpose of the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson. That ruling stamped the court's imprimatur on the burgeoning laws and customs stripping Blacks — 90 percent of whom then lived in the South — in ways large and small of their status as American citizens. It directly concerned segregation on public transportation in New Orleans. However, its most powerful impact was to validate depriving Blacks of their access to education and the right to vote.

But there are two things about the Plessy decision even more important than realizing what it did.

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