In an America that elected Barack Obama its first African-American president who appointed Eric Holder as its first African-American Attorney General, is there still a need for civil rights protections?
All one has to do is look at the current docket of civil rights cases before the Supreme Court to realize the answer to that question is a resounding, ''Yes.''
In several important cases to be heard by the Court this month, we find civil rights under assault. How the Court decides will not only affect the lives of millions of African Americans, it will clearly show us where the nation stands in its commitment to equal opportunity under the law.
In Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, the Court will decide whether to uphold the Section 5 pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965 and renewed by Congress in 2006. The Voting Rights Act which eliminated barriers to African- American voting in southern states with a history of racial discrimination.
A provision in that law requires the affected states to obtain permission from the Justice Department if they want to change their voting procedures. Some of the jurisdictions covered by this ''pre-clearance'' provision have filed suit arguing that it is no longer needed.
They claim ''The conditions that existed 30 or more years ago…have long since been remedied.''
Recent attacks on voting rights in the elections of 2000 in Florida and 2004 in Ohio, as well as the use of arduous identification requirements in some states, clearly show the need for stronger, not weaker, voting rights protections.
The National Urban League strongly supports the continuation of Section 5. In Ricci v. DeStefano the Court will decide whether employers can continue to consider race in seeking diversity in the workplace. The case stems from a suit filed by white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut.
They claim it was unfair for the city to scrap a 2003 promotions test after all 27 African American firefighters who took it failed to qualify. The Court could uphold the traditional broad view favoring workplace diversity or it could apply a strict equal-treatment rule to civil service tests.
The National Urban League supports the African American firefighters through a Friend of the Court brief. Finally, in Cuomo v. Clearing House Association, the Supreme Court will rule whether the Attorney General for the State of New York has the authority to investigate the discriminatory lending practices that have resulted in a disproportionately high number of high interest subprime loans being issued to African American and Hispanic borrowers.
As John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said ''This case presents the Supreme Court with an ideal opportunity to address the root of our current economic crisis. This will place at the forefront the impact this crisis has and continues to have on minority communities.''
It is believed by many that former President George W. Bush weakened the Supreme Court's commitment to civil rights enforcement with his appointments of conservatives: John Roberts as Chief Justice and Samuel Alito as the replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor. The upcoming rulings may tell us how hard we must fight in the coming years to ensure that the nation does not turn its back on civil rights.