Rethinking Racial Justice Law a Year After the Gutting of the Voting Rights Act

By Terry Keleher Jun 25, 2014

A year ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act, one of the landmark civil rights laws designed to
 protect people of color from discrimination. It marked another blow in a long succession of hostile legal decisions aimed at institutionalizing the notion of "color-blindness," narrowing the definition of racism, and raising the bar for proving its existence.

The Act, as intended by Congress and most recently revisited and affirmed in 2006, authorized the Department of Justice to "preclear" changes to voting laws in covered jurisdictions that historically discriminated against voters of color. Yet the Court declared Section 4, which specified the covered jurisdictions, to be unconstitutional, in effect, rendering much of the Act unenforceable.

Despite a nationwide surge in voter suppression initiatives, many of which would disproportionately impact and impede voting access to people of color–efforts extensively covered by Colorlines–Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion, stated that "our country has changed" for the better and that the discriminatory conditions addressed in the Act had "no logical relation to the present day."

Providing immediate proof of Roberts’ flawed logic and ahistoric analysis, within hours of the decision, Texas, a previously covered jurisdiction which was found to be in violation of the Act as recently as 2012, wasted no time in advancing its voter ID law.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is consistent with modern conservative and restrictive legal theory on race, which defines discrimination as intentional, placing the burden of proof on plaintiffs to prove the malicious motive. This "intent doctrine" however, flies in the face of contemporary social science, which has amassed an impressive body of evidence demonstrating that discrimination is often unconscious, and therefore, unintentional.

For legal advocates committed to anti-discrimination, it has become increasingly constraining and challenging to initiate claims that the courts will view favorably.

That’s why the legal community is looking for more ways to expand its tools, theories and strategies to not only remedy discrimination but to affirmatively advance racial equity.

Addressing this need, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law just launched the Racial Justice Training Initiative for lawyers, holding its first face-to-face convening in Chicago last week. The intensive seminar, part of a six-month process of interactive learning and team-based action, engaged nearly 40 lawyers selected from a nationwide pool of applicants, representing 19 organizations spanning 11 states.

"The Racial Justice Training Institute will give legal advocates the tools to identify race-based inequities and to affect broad-based change on behalf of low-income people of color," said John Bouman, president of the Shriver Center.

Professor John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, speaking at the opening reception, said, "You can’t build a house with a hammer; you can’t build a house with a screwdriver–you need a whole bunch of tools and people who know how to use them."

Tools and strategies addressed in the intensive seminar included systems analysis, opportunity mapping, framing issues, advancing equitable policies, counteracting implicit bias, community lawyering and using racial equity impact assessments. These tools are ripe for wider application.

Serving as a member of the faculty for the inaugural class, it was clear to me that many lawyers are hungry for new strategies for addressing long-standing racial inequities. There’s a growing need to rethink, retool and reinvigorate efforts to advance justice for all people.

The Shriver Center’s "Clearinghouse Review" recently devoted a special issue to the topic of "pursuing racial justice in the 21st century," featuring a variety of legal angles and innovations for addressing contemporary racial inequities.

Perhaps as important as the collective learning by the inaugural class is the creation of a network of advocates committed to advancing a coordinated racial justice agenda.

"The goal of the Racial Justice Training Institute is to move legal services and equal justice advocates nationally to adopt explicitly race-conscious affirmative advocacy," said Ellen Hemley, vice president of training programs at the Shriver Center. "As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it is clear that there is still work to do. Legal aid and public interest lawyers have an important role to play in moving racial justice forward, and the Racial Justice Training Institute will galvanize that effort." 

In the long road to racial justice, there are continual strides and setbacks. Last year, the Supreme Court’s takedown of one of the towering achievements of the civil rights era was a major setback. But this year, the seeds of a reinvigorated racial justice-minded legal community are being sown, raising hope that the long march toward justice in our communities and courts will, once again, prevail.