By its latest shameful edict supporting bans against affirmative action, the Roberts Court proved again the truth of what Justice Sotomayor declared in powerful dissent: race matters! The decision also showed that courts matter: they change lives.
A graphic in the New York Times (4/22/2014) shows that in states that have banned affirmative action, the gap between the percentage of black and Hispanic residents of college age and the those admitted to the main state universities has swelled. The gap is most dramatic in California for Hispanic youth. Worse still, the percentage of black freshmen at UC Berkeley is 2%, and at UCLA it’s 3%.
Read that not as “statistics”, but as dreams deferred, young lives discounted. Anyone who has ever been involved in college admissions knows outstanding doctors and others in worthwhile careers who would never have had a chance without affirmative action: conscious efforts to counter the crushing inequality of opportunity imposed by racism. Nor would we have Supreme Court Justice Sotomayer. (That goes for Justice Thomas as well, although he needed a full court press by a GOP establishment that exploits racism as a cornerstone of its political strategy.)
The Roberts Court has set me to imagining what might have been if its present majority had been around to decide cases from 1954 to 1969. I can’t help thinking how my life, among countless others, might have turned out very differently. These were years in which major decisions advanced civil rights in education and voting, and in striking down Jim Crow laws. These were years in which many outrages rampant under “McCarthyism” were declared unconstitutional or checked by the Supreme Court. Of course the vital force that propelled positive actions by the federal courts (and the Executive branch) was grass roots struggle, with much courage and sacrifice.
In the rebound from McCarthyism starting in 1954, the federal courts gutted the Smith Act, two McCarran Acts, and the “loyalty oaths” that were imposed on academia and the teaching profession. Overruled were government demands for membership lists of organizations deemed “subversive” as well as the denial of passports to critics of US policies. By the time the unconstitutional witch hunts were overturned, step by step over more than a decade, dozens had served long prison terms, some were crippled and even killed in prison, thousands were barred or forced out of jobs, and inquisitions run by racist dominated “Un-American” committees had invaded every corner of American life.
To make it personal, I was cited under the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1954 and denied an academic position at the State University of New York in 1964 because of the terms of the Feinberg “loyalty” law. If the McCarran Act had been upheld, I would have been ordered to turn over the membership lists of the Labor Youth League. When (not if) I refused, the penalty by law was 5 years in jail and $5,000 fine for each day of refusal to comply! Justice Scalia, who enjoys a joke, would have found that hilarious.
Courts change lives. The Roberts Court has slammed its door on on the aspirations of America’s young people of color for equality of opportunity.
Sadly, the Supreme Court is currently the most functional branch of the federal government. This is not the first time in our history that it has endorsed racial oppression. But the Roberts Court can be reigned in if the forces of political climate change are progressive and determined — that may be suggested by the inability of the Roberts majority to stem the tide of Gay Rights. Sooner rather than later, a prime democratic objective has to be to override the Roberts majority’s contempt for democracy and the people who constitute Romney’s 47% (or should that be 99%?).
It’s far from easy, but the Court has to be changed for the better in the next several years, or it will continue changing lives for the worse.