Court Rulings Defy Historical Reality

By Anthony Lewis News York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Court Rulings Defy Historical Reality


Anthony Lewis News York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Judge us by what we do, not what we say. If you apply that adage to what the Supreme Court and other courts have done on issues of race in recent months, the message is unmistakable. The legal effort to bring more blacks into the mainstream of politics and education is being derailed.

Last month the Supreme Court struck down congressional district lines in North Carolina and Texas on the ground that race - the desire to create a few districts with a majority of black and other minority voters - was a "predominant factor." That, said the court, denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Then, on the last day of its term, the court declined to hear the Hopwood case, in which the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said state un iversities could not consider race as "a factor" - not at all, that is - in admissions. That rule, if applied strictly, would doom even modest plans to diversify student bodies.

There are complexities of law and fact that can rightly be said to qualify what the courts have done in both of those areas. But the bottom line, the effect on the realities of race relations, cannot be missed.

On districting, the historical reality is that for the better part of a century no black served in Congress from a Southern state. The states saw to it that their large black populations were kept politically powerless, by gerrymandering or by crude devices to keep blacks from voting.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement awakened the conscience of the country, Congress determined above all to assure black political rights in the South. That was the aim of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, under which blacks have been elected to state legislatures and Congress.

If one looks to history as a guide to constitutional decision, as such judges as Clarence Thomas say they want to do, the case for upholding the Voting Rights Act and its results is overwhelming. Everyone agrees that the main purpose of the 14th and 15th amendments was to uplift the former slaves. Both amendments specifically empowered Congress to enforce them by appropriate legislation. What could be more appropriate than assuring that black populations, so long denied equal rights, had a chance to elect some of their own to Congress? …

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