Tonawanda News

June 26, 2013

DUVALL: High Court's split decision on race

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In issuing two major rulings on race relations and public policy in America, the Supreme Court seems more or less where most of us are in what was a naive declaration we’ve entered a post-racial America. The court is conflicted.

On Monday it issued a narrow opinion upholding a 2006 ruling that colleges can use an applicant’s race as part of its admissions decision, though race alone cannot be a determining factor.

Essentially, it upheld affirmative action in a 7-1 decision.

On Tuesday, the court struck down the linchpin provision in the landmark Voting Rights Act, permitting Southern states with a history of black voter suppression to alter voting laws without getting approval from the federal government.

Essentially, it ended the Civil Rights Era in America in a 5-4 decision along ideological lines.

So we’re admitting that blacks and other minorities still must overcome systemic bias in our nation’s schools but their political influence isn’t at risk if we put Southern conservative statehouses in charge of making voter laws?

The intricacies of the two cases should be given their due, but taken as a whole — and made for easy comparison by the timing of the whole thing — the court’s position on race relations in America is as muddled as ever.

Let’s start with affirmative action.

I was an average student in high school. I went to a decent public school (Sweet Home) that was far better funded than many schools kids my age who lived in Buffalo call their alma mater.

An honest accounting of my academic career requires me to admit I could have been a much better student if I tried harder. I carried a pedestrian B/B+ average through almost all of high school and college. I could have gotten As (and sometimes did) but goofing around was more fun than doing math homework so too frequently — and to my parents’ and teachers’ consternation — I simply didn’t do it.

Put my effort and results up against a fictional student who attended predominantly black Bennett High School in Buffalo. Bennett’s truancy rate is more than 20 percent so walking in the door puts you in select company. The graduation rate hovers around 50 percent.

To carry a B+ average there, that kid definitely had to overcome more obstacles than me. My school was better funded, with better (and more) teachers and extracurricular activities — an atmosphere more likely to promote success in every conceivable way.

The context is obvious: An inner-city black student who struggled to achieve decent grades is certainly more worthy of the last spot in a college than an under-performing, rather lazy suburban white student with the same grade point average.

Colleges interested in promoting diversity not just in percentages but in each student’s story would be better served picking the Bennett graduate, regardless of his race, over me.

As for the court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, I see an ideological decision, not one based on fact.

Chief Justice John Roberts in writing for the conservative majority, praised the law’s role in ending segregation in the South but at the same time ignores the role it still plays today in preserving the legacy originally set forth in the 15th Amendment.

As opponents of the civil rights law point out, America has elected its first black president. Voter turnout in some areas is higher among blacks than whites. On the municipal level, many Southern cities have black mayors.

Yes, black people can and do get to the polls.

But, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in the liberal bloc’s dissent, declaring a portion of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional opens the door to “second-generation barriers” like gerrymandering, polling location changes and photo identification laws that will ultimately serve to subvert minority influence in our political process.

Black districts will be sliced and diced to dilute traditionally Democratic strongholds that elect black lawmakers at the state and federal level. Polling places will be moved to more inconvenient locations, putting inner city transportation barriers in play. And if black voters overcome those obstacles they’ll need to prove they’re eligible to vote with identification many do not possess or even know they need in order to cast a ballot.

The end result is almost assuredly fewer black people voting.

Roberts is right when he notes “Times have changed.” There are no more poll taxes or Jim Crow laws to prevent blacks in the South from casting a ballot. 

That doesn’t change a plain fact: It is willfully naive for the court’s conservative bloc to suggest there is not still a concerted effort in Southern states to target minorities and limit their participation in — and control over — our political process.

Given these two historic cases were resolved in the same week, I guess you’d have to call it a split decision.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.