Within a matter of days late last month, four controversies erupted that acutely underscore the crux of Black Americans continuing challenge in this land.
In one, Emory University President James W. Wagner seemed to suggest that the bargaining among the delegates at the Constitutional Convention that produced the infamous three-fifths clause of the Constitution was a model of the value of compromise.
In the second, the Feb. 21 Bloomberg Businessweek magazine cover had a drawing, above the title, “The Great American Housing Rebound,” consisting of caricatures of grinning Black and Hispanic Americans cavorting in a house stuffed with dollar bills – suggesting that minority homeowners were gaming the mortgage system.
Five years ago, conservatives made similar charges in trying to pin most of the blame for the collapse of the nation’s housing bubble on Black and Hispanic borrowers.
The third controversy involved Dov Hikind, a prominent politician in Brooklyn, N.Y. who “corked up” in Blackface, sunglasses and a wild Afro wig, as “a Black basketball player,” to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. Before the volume of rebukes forced him to make an insincere apology, Hikind claimed that any criticism of his behavior was “political correctness to the absurd.”
Finally, and most importantly, on Feb. 27 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to the most important provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the foundation of Blacks’ political advancement since the 1960s. The case was brought by officials of Shelby County, Alabama.
Just four years ago, the Supreme Court turned back a challenge to the Act in a case from Texas.
But in that case the justices sidestepped ruling whether the Act’s key provision – its Section 5 clause – was constitutional. That clause requires jurisdictions covered by the Act to get permission from the Justice Department or a special federal court before changing voting procedures.
Now, many analysts think the court’s conservative majority will strike it down.
Certainly, Justice Antonin Scalia made it clear that is his intent. During the oral arguments, he called the Act a “racial entitlement” program.
It’s a point of view that a century and a half ago formed the foundation of the racist attack to destroy Reconstruction.
There’s another bitter irony to the Shelby case. The debate in the court comes amid a continuing blizzard of laws and regulations in at least 38 states since President Obama’s 2008 election to try to suppress the vote of Blacks and other Democratic-leaning voting blocs.
Those efforts, widely publicized and attacked by civil rights and other groups, had just the opposite effect on Election Day 2012. They produced record-breaking turnouts of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters that signaled a deeper maturation of these groups’ electoral power – and the growing peril shadowing the Republican Party’s ability to contest future presidential elections.
That’s the broader framework encompassing the Shelby County case. It continues the historical pattern of America’s struggle over race and the meaning of democracy.
Every “proof” Black Americans forge that shows they, too, can claim the “unalienable rights” the Constitution declared belong to all human beings has always provoked a fierce reaction from those Whites who’ve staked their status and identity on excluding them.
Yes, the United States is a long way from the evil bargain James W. Wagner foolishly cited as an example of a “good” compromise. But we’re also a long way from the racial Promised Land some people foolishly think is just around the corner.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His most recent book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.’’