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Race and The Summer of 2009 — Challenges Remain!

August 13, 2009

This week, I joined President Obama and many others at a reception in honor of Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court on August 8th.  Justice Sotomayor is only the third woman and the first Latina on the Court.  The addition of this extremely well qualified jurist to the Court is a proud moment for the country.

Her confirmation process, however, and so many other events of this Summer remind us that equal justice under the law is still too often a promise instead of a reality.

In the months leading up to her confirmation by the United States Senate, Judge Sotomayor was attacked by some in racially offensive language, even called an “affirmative action” pick.  These allegations belied her distinguished 17 years of service as an Appellate and Circuit court Judge.  Indeed, when nominated, Justice Sotomayor had more experience on the bench than all other nominees in nearly 100 years, including the other currently serving Justices.  The Lawyers’ Committee was a strong force in the fight that led to this historic and well deserved confirmation.

Also, looking back across the recently completed Supreme Court term, we saw vital cutbacks in civil rights protections in the areas of employment discrimination and in voting rights in the majority’s rulings on cases such as Ricci v. DeStefano and Bartlett v. Strickland.  On a positive note, our six year fight to preserve Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act through the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act and the reenactment of this law in 2006, concluded in victory with the Supreme Court’s decision in Northwest Austin Municipal District 1 v. Holder.  We can expect future challenges in the Supreme Court to core civil rights protections.

Apart from the Supreme Court, we recently we had other reminders this Summer of the road still to be traveled in achieving racial equality.

In early July, 60 black children participating in a summer day camp program were denied access to the Valley Club swimming pool in suburban Philadelphia. Indeed, personnel of the pool told the day camp program counselors that admitting these African American children would “change the complexion” of the pool.  These children also reported overhearing people questioning why black children were allowed at the club.  The club president, later claiming that they had “over booked,” seemed unprepared for the national uproar that ensued. 

A few weeks later, the ugly issue of racial profiling in our society surfaced when one of our country’s most distinguished scholars, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was arrested by the Cambridge, Massachusetts police for disorderly conduct after providing identification establishing that he was standing in his own house and despite Massachusetts law that prohibits yelling at an officer from being defined as disorderly conduct.  This became a heated national controversy after President Obama stated that the officers had “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates.  Again, the media and many in the public demonstrated an inability to openly, civilly, intelligently and without sensationalizing, discuss the role of race in our nation.  Although the President was able to temper public emotions about the matter through his “beer summit” of the parties, the fundamental issue of racial profiling demands systemic action by the Administration going forward.  You can count on the Lawyers’ Committee to pursue this until we have a more just criminal justice system. 

And without a doubt, the troubling racial tone of the Birthers and some of the racist attacks on Black Congressman during the health care debate also are poignant reminders that racial discord is barely beneath the surface of our nation’s politics.  We must urgently now renew efforts to promote racial healing and understanding to lay the groundwork for a future in which racial justice and equality is an embraced goal of all Americans. 

These are just several recent high profile examples of the strange racial climate of the Summer of 2009.

Every day, across America, challenges exist to civil, economic and racial justice in the areas of voting, employment, education, fair housing and fair lending, community development and environmental justice.  As you read through the project pages of this Web site, you will see that the Lawyers’ Committee remains committed to being at the forefront in the continuing struggle.

On behalf of our trustees, board members, clients, volunteers and staff, thank you for your continued support.  Thank you for being part of the fight for justice and equality for all. 

Barbara R. Arnwine
Executive Director

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