Donald Trump has only been in office for 100 days, but in that brief time, his administration has shown an alarming hostility to civil rights and the rule of law. Although the Trump Administration is still young, it is not too early to declare it a real danger to the well-being of Black Americans.
That threat begins in Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ), which is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Under President Obama, the DOJ adopted numerous sensible, evidence-based policies designed to address the severe racial disparities that plague our criminal justice system. But since January 20, the DOJ has moved to dismantle those policies in complete disregard of the potentially disastrous consequences. For example, Sessions wants to repeal Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart On Crime” policy, which directed federal prosecutors to use discretion in handling low-level nonviolent drug crimes, even though doing so will require federal prisons to expend millions of dollars to unnecessarily house low-risk offenders; he approves of mandatory minimum sentences that have sent too many Black men to jail for too long; and he opposes federal efforts to reform local police, despite the repeated incidents of police officers killing African-Americans without cause. Sessions has defended these actions by arguing that America is engulfed in a wave of violent crime, even though national crime levels are in fact at historic lows. Rather than seeking to make our criminal justice system truly fair, Trump and Sessions have embraced policies that will deepen racial divides, harm struggling communities, and do little to make our troubled neighborhoods safer.
The Trump Administration is also working to make it harder for minorities to vote. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a number of states and jurisdictions passed laws requiring voters to have certain forms of photo ID. Although there is no doubt that this requirement disproportionately burdens communities of color, states have claimed that these laws are necessary to combat widespread in-person voter fraud – claims that have been debunked time and time again. The Obama DOJ vigorously challenged these laws, but under President Trump, the department has reversed itself, dropping its objection to Texas’s restrictive voter ID law even though the federal courts have concluded that it disenfranchises more than 600,000 Black and Latino voters. And President Trump created a task force to investigate wholly unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2016 election, a disturbing echo of the kind of state-sponsored voter suppression efforts that civil rights activists risked their lives to overturn in the 20th century.
At the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), we are fighting back. We took part in a successful challenge of the Texas voter ID law, we are suing Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana for violations of the Voting Rights Act, and we are challenging another voter ID law in Sessions’s home state of Alabama. We sued to intervene in the Baltimore consent decree to ensure it moved forward even without DOJ’s support, and we have forcefully championed police reform in a number of American cities.
The good news is that the courts have responded by holding the line and requiring the Trump Administration to adhere to the constitution and the rule of law: federal judges denied the administration’s request to delay the Baltimore consent decree; they have repeatedly found restrictive voter ID laws to be unconstitutional; they struck down both of the administration’s discriminatory travel bans; and they have rejected attempts to withhold funding from “Sanctuary Cities” that limit their cooperation with federal immigration laws. And its not just the courts who are standing strong. The first 100 days of the Trump Administration have seen a groundswell of democratic protest and activism that shows no sign of abating. In a nation ruled by “We, the people,” this offers real reason for hope.
Our system of checks and balances is working. But Trump’s presidency has only just begun. In the hundreds of days to come, we can be certain that this administration will continue trying to roll back hard-won civil rights protections. We can be certain that it will continue using false claims about violent crime and voter fraud to chip away at the progress we have made towards a just society. We know that the president will seek to appoint federal judges who, like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, cloak an opposition to civil rights in the language of “constitutional originalism” or “judicial restraint.”
We know that this struggle is only going to become more difficult.
But we also know that LDF will not stop fighting for the rights and dignity of all people, no matter how many days it takes to win.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. http://www.naacpldf.org/contact-us