Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.
The estimated $300 billion in anticipated tax refunds this year is irresistible to predatory preparers targeting the poor. Stephen Black, director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama, appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss this “wild west” of an industry that leeches money from impoverished communities. Families expecting the earned income tax credit, in need of help with tax preparation but without access to the certified CPAs that do taxes for the wealthy, turn instead to shady pop-up operations that sprout during tax season. “The average single mother working at Walmart making $19,000 a year, raising two kids, goes into one of these places,” says Black, “and will come out $300” poorer.
“How do we express a rage about the lack of progress while also acknowledging that our circumstances are not that of our forebearers?” asks MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry of a panel that includes Nation.com blogger and Nation Institute fellow Mychal Denzel Smith. Smith, whose recent Nation.com post, “The Function of Black Rage” is used as a focal point for the segment, responds, “We do just that.” While it is a good thing black people in America are no longer slaves, says Smith, “we have so much more to do,” pointing to issues like mass incarceration and food insecurity that often go unacknowledged as “racism, that are the products of white supremacy.”
Since publicly identifying as a trans woman in 2011, Janet Mock has been deeply involved in transgender activism, and her new memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, carries forward that work. As she explains in this clip on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show, this memoir reaches out to an audience of young people facing experiences similar to hers. In the book, Mock describes her path toward realizing her identity and finding love: "I wanted to show that we can be lovable and we as trans women, as marginalized women—period—of color that we can exist in the daytime and live a very full life and write our stories."
Michelle Goldberg, senior contributing writer at The Nation, joined Princeton professor Yolanda Pierce, Newsweek editor David Cay Johnson and political strategist Joe Watkins on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show to discuss the links between marriage and economic security. Though many prominent Republican politicians are now advocating marriage as a means of eradicating poverty, Goldberg insists that the opposite is actually true: economic instability causes people to get divorced or avoid getting married altogether. "What's dissolved is not the moral underpinning of marriage but the financial underpinning," Goldberg said.
A voting station in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, November 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
This article originally appeared at MSNBC.com.
The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, is devastating, but not definitive. This court has done significant damage to the most important piece of civil rights legislation in our modern history, but there is still hope to fight back and restore protective laws that ensure all eligible Americans can access the ballot.
First, the good news: This does not change who has a right to vote.
I have received panicked e-mails from friends asking if the right to vote for African-Americans is in jeopardy. Strictly speaking, it is not. The right to vote for men, regardless of race, is protected by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment states that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Black women were added to constitutional citizenship through a combination of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits disenfranchisement based on sex.
Today’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder does not strip black men and women, or anyone else, of the right to vote. However, it does incalculable violence to the primary tool necessary to ensure that state governments honor these constitutional rights.
Now, some bad news: the history of our nation demonstrates that the constitutional right to vote is not enough to ensure that citizens can exercise this right.
Although the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments forbade states from simply declaring African-Americans ineligible to vote, they did not protect black voters in practice. Throughout the Jim Crow era, Southern states innovated a menu of presumably race-neutral policies that effectively kept black Americans from voting. Grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white primaries, and intimidation at the polls were strategies enforced with state-sanctioned violence to effectively disenfranchise generations of black Americans.
It was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally put a stop to these practices. It was Section 5 of that Act that has protected those gains for decades.
So here is the really bad news: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been rendered moot, at least for now.
Before 10 am on Tuesday, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided that certain states and localities with a particularly egregious history of racial restrictions and racial violence around voting were required to “preclear” proposed changes in voting or election procedures through the Department of Justice. The provision covered many, but not all, of the states that had enacted the most vicious Jim Crow practices in the nearly 100 years leading up the the VRA’s passage. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act determined which areas were covered by Section 5.
But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4, saying that the formula for determining which states had to ask permission to change their voting procedures and practices was unconstitutional. By striking down Section 4, the Court made it impossible to implement Section 5, at least in the short term. The majority opinion described the formula as “obsolete” and seems to argue that states must have a kind of assumed equality as members of our union.
The Court is wrong.
As Yale Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar argues, the Fourteenth Amendment provides a model, embedded in our constitution, for treating states differently when they show a history of egregious violations against humanity and democracy. Amar points out that “states with abysmal track records of rights-enforcement and democratically deficient voting rules were not allowed back into Congress to sit alongside states with minimally acceptable track records, and these same democratically deficient states were also not allowed to resume full powers of state self-governance enjoyed by their nondeficient sister states.”
It is entirely consistent with our Constitution to require states with pathetic track records to meet a higher standard of self-governance than those without those histories.
So, what can we do?
Section 5 pre-clearance ensured that many states had to ask permission before passing new legislation that affects voting. Now those states can—and will—pass laws without an automatic review. But citizens can still force the courts to determine if these laws are unfair by bringing suit against them. This significantly shifts the burden and makes if much harder to protect fair voting practices. But who said democracy was easy? Pre-clearance was an effective deterrent to discriminatory practices, but threat of swift litigation can also deter those who seek to create barriers to voting. We will need the commitment of an army of civil rights lawyers to begin to bring these cases.
2. Vote in 2014!
As devastating as this ruling is, it is also a sign of weakness on the part of the Court. Unwilling to simply declare Section 5 unconstitutional, they struck down the formula for enforcing it. But they left the door open for Congress to write a new formula. If you want a renewed Voting Rights Act, you are going to have to vote for a new Congress. American voters cannot afford to sit out these midterms as they did in 2010, only a significant effort to turn the tide in the 114th Congress can ensure a fair formula that puts teeth back into this civil rights legislation.
3. Watch Mount Holly.
But watch out, because even if Congress suddenly discovered a latent, bipartisan commitment to equal ballot access, it might have a hard time crafting an acceptable formula for pre-clearance. The Supreme Court will soon decide a case known as Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. This will allow the Court to decide if it is constitutional to determine if a policy is discriminatory based on “disparate impact.” In other words, Mt. Holly will decide if it is enough to be able to show that a policy has a strong, negative impact on communities of color, or if you must also show that the policy makers have a racist intent. Depending on how the Court decides Mt. Holly, it may be impossible to keep lawmakers from restricting access to the polls, unless you can prove they were purposefully racist in their intentions.
4. Constitutional Amendment.
No American citizen has a positive right to vote ensured by the Constitution. Go back and read that language from the Fifteenth Amendment again. See? All it says is that a state can’t abridge your right to vote. The Voting Rights Act and the pre-clearance rules are necessary only because the right to vote and the rules of how you cast your ballot all reside with the states. Tuesday’s decision shows just how fragile our rights are when they are vested in this way. Now may be the time to introduce and begin to build support for a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to vote and setting out a national standard for ballot access.
Most importantly, don’t give up hope. Remember, the struggle continues. Victories for fairness must always be defended with democratic vigilance. This nation’s founding declaration proclaims the self-evident nature of human equality and of the righteousness of self-government. Our job is to ceaselessly work to realize that vision.
The Supreme Court may have struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, but, according to Ari Berman, there’s something the court still doesn’t understand about the VRA.
Who ends up being most affected by urban schools closings? On her Sunday show, The Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry speaks with a panel of guests, including Nation writer Ari Berman and parent activist Zakiyah Ansari from New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, about the racialized impact of school closings and turnarounds. Ansari is an organizer for the national “Journey for Justice” campaign, which will be meeting with Education Department officials this Tuesday.
For background on the Journey for Justice campaign, visit TheNation.com’s Extra Credit blog.
Haiti has received $13.34 billion dollars in public donations marked for 2010–20. But 55 percent of Haitians are still living on less than $1.25 a day, and 50 percent of the population is 18 years old or younger. Why aren’t Haitians reaping the benefits of foreign aid? As Melissa Harris-Perry and guests discuss on her show, we have to hold to account NGOs and opportunistic foreign governments.
For more on the Haitian crisis, read Amy Wilentz’s analysis of its new maquiladora economy in the most recent issue of The Nation.
This week, Melissa Harris-Perry asks us “to have a conversation not only about the poor but with people who are themselves living in poverty.” That’s because the war on poverty has too often been a war on the poor themselves. Watch the full clip to hear how we can take full stock of how this war has been waged from Clinton through Obama.
For more on America's domestic warfare, read Melissa Harris-Perry column in this week's print edition of the Nation.
If Congress can’t reach a deal by New Year’s, 2.1 million people will be kicked off unemployment benefits. Not only would that be catastrophic for millions of low-income families across the country, it could strike a huge blow to our economy. Cutting support for the jobless would mean a loss of 48 billion in economic revenue. Nation blogger Greg Kaufmann joins Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry on her MSNBC show to raise the alarm about the real looming cliff—the one facing families unable to find work.
For more on the threat to unemployment benefits, check out Greg Kaufmann’s coverage here. And watch the Melissa Harris-Perry show each week for her “Below the Line” segment, focusing on poverty in the United States.
On Black Friday, hundreds of Walmart workers protested the superstore’s unfair labor practices and “Always Low Wages” policy. While Walmart’s bottom-line business model has made the Walton family billions, their employees in California were 40 percent more likely to need public assistance. Walmart is not only slashing prices on flat-screen TVs—they’re suppressing wages and costing tax payers millions of dollars. Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry checks the numbers to see why the Walton’s “Live Better” math—which claims their low-price model benefits all families—doesn’t quite add up.
For more on the fight against corporate greed, check out Allison Kilkenny’s coverage of “Occupy Walmart.”