Pulling an all-nighter
Feeling like a fighter
On essay page 39
This coffee’s so fine
Reading lots of books
Forget good looks
Not enough beauty rest
I’d rather ace the test
From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act
Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional in the Shelby County v. Holder case. Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in order to combat discriminatory voting laws, requiring certain jurisdictions to receive preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before enacting changes in voting laws. Now, the federal government may no longer use the coverage formula to subject jurisdictions to the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 preclearance enforcement when these jurisdictions attempt to alter their voting laws. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision have attributed much of the progress in minority populations’ voting participation since Congress enacted the VRA to the Act itself, citing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
“From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act” was less of a debate about how the Supreme Court’s ruling will affect the country and more of a one-sided affirmation that Congress must act, and do so quickly, in order to prevent potential discriminatory laws. Most of the panelists spoke as elected officials, and all but one of the panelists agreed with the Supreme Court’s dissent.
Panel I included Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI-5) while Panel II included Luz Urbaez Weinberg, Commissioner of the City of Aventura, Florida; Michael Carvin, Partner at Jones Day law firm; and Justin Levitt, Associate Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, CA.
Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) opened the hearing saying that even those who voted to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act admitted that discrimination still exists. Americans, regardless of party, should be totally opposed to suppressing votes, he said. Most of the other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who asked questions and spoke at the hearing, including Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Senators Dick Durban (D-Illinois), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Al Franken (D-Minnesota), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) largely agreed with the notion that the hearing’s title suggests: that members of Congress must work together to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. John Lewis spoke about the historical progress that his hometown and his district have made since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, from when just 2 percent of the African Americans in his majority African American town were registered to vote to now, when the mayor and most of the town’s council are African American. “The vote is the most powerful, non-violent act that we have” as Americans, he said, and it is the responsibility of Congress to restore the “the heart and soul” of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner pointed out that President Reagan even supported the Voting Rights Act and said that “actions speak louder than words” when signing the reauthorization of the Act while in office. Rep. Sensenbrenner also said that voting is the “crown jewel” of our democratic society and that the Court disregarded years of the legislative branch’s work when it struck down such a vital part of the Voting Rights Act.
Michael Carvin of the second panel, however, stated that Section 5 is unnecessary because Section 2 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act and is the source of the Act’s success. This section prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified in Section 4(f)(2) of the Act, and it applies nationwide. Unlike other provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2 is permanent and has no expiration date. Mr. Carvin said that Section 2 is just as speedy and effective, or even more effective, than Section 5. He pointed out the discrepancy in that most states did not have preclearance and that local or state laws that may lead to housing, employment, or other types of discrimination also do not have pre-clearance.
To this, Professor Justin Levitt replied that election laws are different. He said that the protections that the Supreme Court removed were able to stop discrimination before such discrimination could take effect and that pre-clearance acted as a deterrent for districts to make discriminatory changes in their voting laws. Senator Klobuchar agreed that litigating a case, now that the Section 5 enforcement is defunct, does not act as sufficient deterrence.
Luz Urbaez Weinberg, Commissioner of the City of Aventura also believed in the need to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Senators present at the hearing all appreciated Ms. Weinberg’s testimony, as she presented her support as a local official and as a Republican. Her evaluation of current discriminatory voting laws is that they have become “sneaky, sophisticated, and smarter.” In addition to this issue, long lines at the voting booths prevent people with hourly day jobs from voting, as they simply cannot take four hours off of work to wait in a line if they only have a half-hour or an hour-long lunch break. “Starbucks has figured out how to not have seven hour lines,” Professor Levitt chimed in, and election officials should figure out the same. Ms. Weinberg stressed that the issue of voting rights is non-racial, non-language dependent, and ultimately non-partisan. If members of Congress want to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, they will certainly need bipartisan support to do so.
Telecommunications, Capital, and Civil Rights
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council announced that the theme for its 11th Access to Capital and Telecom Policy Conference would be “Maximizing Innovation, Inclusion, and Entrepreneurship in a Digital Economy.”
The opening lunch discussion featured former members of Congress Ed Towns (D-New York) and Cliff Stearns (R-Florida), who both co-chair the New Telecom and Internet Policy Taskforce, as well as Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina); Joe Armstrong, President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators; Sharon Weston Broome, President of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women; and Stephanie Lynch, President of the National Association of Black County Officials. They spoke about how people who do not have access to technology or do not use it will be left behind. 5 percent of Americans do not have access to broadband, many of whom live in southern and rural communities. However, President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative aims to increase the use of technology in schools and expand access to such technology. Many state senators and local officials from around the country chimed in to this discussion.
The wealth gap roundtable featured panelists Kelvin Boston, Host and Executive Producer of PBS-TV’s Moneywise with Kelvin Boston; Jane Campbell, Majority Staff Director of the US Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee; Maureen Lewis, Director of Minority Telecommunications Development of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and James L. Winston, Executive Director and General Counsel of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, Inc. In addition to discussing current civil rights issues such as the Supreme Court’s rulings in Shelby County v. Holder and in Fisher v. University of Texas, they mentioned issues that are not as prominent in the news. Ms. Campbell, for example, provided the shocking statistic that the average black family’s net worth is $6,000 while the average white family’s net worth is $110,000. “Wealth is how you grow; income is how you eat,” David Honig, the Co-Founder and President of the host organization, MMTC, would later explain. The African-American unemployment rates are higher than white unemployment rates, especially when comparing the youth rates. The panelists explained how low-income homes are less likely to have access to broadband and how this broadband gap exacerbates the education gap. Lastly, there are no black anchors on major primetime news TV, Mr. Honig said.
The civil rights roundtable featured panelists Carrie Gan, Executive Director for the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment; Janaye Ingram, DC Bureau Chief of the National Action Network; Jason Lagria, Senior Staff Attorney of the Asian American Justice Center; Catherine J.K. Sandoval, Commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission; and Hilary Shelton, Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy of the NAACP Washington Bureau.
Ms. Sandoval mentioned how Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC changed media ownership rules. After the FCC sought to dismantle the remaining protections against media consolidation, Prometheus sued and won in a Third Circuit Court of Appeals 2-1 decision. The court also instructed the FCC to consider how its rules will affect women’s and minorities’ media ownership in the future. This court decision prevented media consolidation that would have made it more difficult for minorities to own media corporations.
Mr. Shelton spoke about how communication efforts were partially at fault during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. The media told the people of New Orleans to evacuate, not even taking into account that 50 percent of the people in New Orleans did not own a car and did not think to use school buses. Without sensitivity towards the audience, Mr. Shelton said, the media outlets could not properly get their messages across.
Ms. Gan stressed the need to disseminate important information in different languages in order to properly inform the nation’s many immigrants, and Mr. Lagria stated that the use of diversity is a compelling government interest in higher education, as it should also be in media.
The first day of the conference ended in an awards reception, because although many challenges continue to face minorities in terms of gaining access to capital and telecommunications, many professionals have dedicated their careers to working towards a media field rich in diversity that matches the rich diversity of the country.