Let’s just take one day, Feb. 27, 2013, as a snapshot of the state of equality and justice in America.
For me, that day started off tense. The Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments in the case of Shelby County v. Holder-a constitutional challenge to one of the most effective provisions of any civil rights law in American history: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Section 5 requires nine states and assorted jurisdictions in seven others to secure Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. The civil rights community collectively saw it as an ominous sign. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, almost a century after passage of the 15th Amendment, finally brought full voting rights and a more representative government to the South.
I refuse to be pessimistic because the facts are on our side. It only takes four justices to agree to hear a case, but I believe that five justices will uphold the law.
During arguments, the lawyers ably defended Section 5, but they were confronted with clear hostility from conservative justices. Justice Scalia stunned everyone by openly showing contempt for the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA by Congress. “Who wouldn’t,” he asked caustically, “vote for something called the ‘Voting Rights Act’?” He then piled on even more, calling Section 5 a “racial entitlement.” As someone tweeted: Wasn’t voting a white-only racial entitlement prior to the Voting Rights Act?
In contrast, a joyous and historic event started an hour later right across the street. Inside the United States Capitol, Congress unveiled a life-size statue of Rosa Parks. Parks ignited the Montgomery bus desegregation boycott by being arrested for refusing to give her seat to a White passenger. Her statue sits among a cluster of White men encircling the round hall, and falls within the gaze of the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
At the ceremony were Parks’ family members, a military Color Guard, and the United States Army Chorus, which gave a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Congressional leaders addressed the large crowd with unusual poignancy. And three history-making Black men spoke as well: Rev. Barry Black, the first Black chaplain of the United States Senate; Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction; and the first Black president, Barack Hussein Obama.
My heart swelled and tears came to my eyes. I felt lifted and elated that Parks would be afforded such an honor. And I noticed all the Black, Asian-American and Latino members of Congress. Their numbers have tripled, as a result of the VRA, in the three decades since I first stepped foot on Capitol Hill.
As I left the ceremony, beaming, I received a message on my BlackBerry. The Institute of Assets and Social Policy released a study that tells a terrible story. According to “The Roots of the Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” the wealth gap between White and African-American families has tripled in the last 25 years, driven by dramatic disparities in years of home ownership, unemployment, post-secondary education, generational wealth transfer and financial support among families and friends.
But, after returning home, I am able to read the New York Times, and I get a dose of good news: an article reporting sharply declining rates of imprisonment for African-Americans. Much of that decline is due to the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold that post and signed into law by President Obama in 2010 and. Though a superb development, it’s tempered by the fact that one out of every 13 African-Americans is disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction.
So, that was Feb. 27 for me. Just one day shows that from hour-to-hour the pendulum can swing from joy to despair and despair to joy. That’s the state of equality and justice in America today: conflicted, fickle, and a source of both hope and great concern in virtually equal measure.
Laura Murphy is director of the Washington Legislative Office, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).