Has the Supreme Court Ever Decided Your Rights?Jul 12, 2023
I saw a meme online that said, “If you've never had a Supreme Court case decide if you have the same rights as others, you have privilege.” I started thinking about the hundreds of years and incremental steps that it’s taken for marginalized groups to try to get equity with the rights automatically afforded to white men.
Sometimes I think people forget or maybe they just never knew how many laws it has taken for Black folks to almost have the same rights as white people by law (not by social norms). Here’s a reminder (and it’s not all inclusive).
1865 - The 13th amendment legally ended slavery In the United States, except as a punishment for a crime. And we know that that loophole was used to expand the prison system. Check out the movie 13th if you haven’t seen it already. Netflix has made it available for free on YouTube.
1866 - The Civil Rights Act of 1866, just a year after the 13th amendment, established that all persons born in the United States are citizens, specifically define the rights of American citizenship, and made it illegal to deny any person the rights of citizenship based on race.
1868 - The 14th amendment says that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process or deny any person the equal protection of the law. But we know that lynching was common and still takes place. Destroying Black towns, whether by fire, bombs, or intentional flooding was common. Destroying successful Black businesses was common, whether by physically destroying the property or threatening the lives of the business owners.
1870 - The 15th amendment says that no person shall be denied the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. And I hope it's common knowledge that the southern states created difficult, and often impossible, tests for Black people to take in order to vote. For example, they used literacy tests for formerly enslaved people, knowing that it was illegal for enslaved folks to learn how to read. There were poll taxes, and restrictions like being allowed to vote if your grandfather was eligible to vote. No formerly enslaved person had a grandfather who could vote.
1920 - The 19th amendment says that no person shall be denied the right to vote based on their sex. This secured the vote for white women, many of whom were outraged that Black men had the right to vote before white women, even if it was only on paper.
1954 - Brown versus Board of Education determined that separate is inherently unequal, overturning Plessy versus Ferguson. However, the court did not determine how desegregation should occur, leaving it open for states and localities to evade or openly defy the ruling.
Little Rock Nine, John T Bledsoe, photographer, Library of Congress
1964 - Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, it made employment discrimination illegal. Again, the letter and the spirit of the law are not the same as social norms. While things have improved, employment discrimination is common for race, gender, ability, and any other way that humans categorize themselves.
Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X at the Capitol in 1964, Marion S. Trikosko, photographer, Library of Congress
1967 - Loving versus Virginia made interracial marriage legal. Before this decision couples with an interracial marriage could not live in the state of Virginia, and if they did, they could serve jail time.
1990 - The Americans with Disabilities Act “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities…The ADA guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs.”
2015 - Obergefell versus Hodges made same sex marriage legal. And same sex couples still face plenty of discrimination. Their protected status is by no means settled law. And yes, this is Black history as well because being queer, disabled, or neurodivergent while Black is an added obstacle to functioning freely in society.
We're not free until we're all free.
While we have made progress, social norms have not caught up with actual law. White people in general would like to believe that most of the country follows the law and pretend that our institutions provide equal opportunity, In reality school segregation still exists. School choice/vouchers are a way to use federal dollars to defund public education and allow for segregation by choice (for parents who can afford it). Employment discrimination is rampant based on race, gender, ability, gender expression, and any other thing that makes the people in charge uncomfortable. Despite the existence of the EEOC (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission), bringing a case can take years and the law often makes it difficult to prove discrimination. Black folks are still fighting in courts to be able to wear our natural hair to work.
The US Supreme Court overturning affirmative action and allowing discrimination are not accidents. These decisions are part of a decades long plan put in place by conservative Republicans who are afraid of progress and competing on a level playing field. They believe they deserve every advantage and will cheat and manipulate the law to keep that privilege over others.
What Can We Do?.
- Know your history. Black history is American history. We all need to know what our ancestors and elders did to make the world what it is. How can we move forward, make amends, reconcile if we don’t know what’s happened in the past? Join the Everyday Activism Habit and go in depth with this lesson.
- Call your representatives. Not sure who they are or what to say? Use an app like 5 calls, available on Google Play and in the App Store, to help you know who to call and what to say.
- Find out what groups in your area support human rights. Figure out the best way to help. Focus on what they need. Avoid making token gestures to make yourself feel good. It might be as simple as making phone calls or writing postcards. But it could mean using your privilege and network to connect people or make the work easier. It might even mean providing a haven for people harmed by new laws.
- Talk about what's happening. Silence is complicity. Every seed of knowledge you share could shift someone else’s thinking.
- Challenge social norms. Ask questions. Uplift people who belong to marginalized groups. Use your privilege to deflect harm and create space for inclusion.
- Be vigilant about safety – your own and that of others. Work with a group who can teach you what to say in public and how to speak in code, when necessary. For example, if you're willing to help women from an anti-abortion state have access to abortion in your area, work with a group who knows the law and how to keep everyone safe.
Ready to DO something right now? Download the Everyday Activism Action Pack and get started today.
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