Sotomayor’s confirmation punctuates another civil rights milestone

This afternoon, the Senate voted to make Sonia Sotomayor the first Latina and only the third woman...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Sonia Sotomayor is greeted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.,Thursday, July 16, 2009, (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This afternoon, the Senate voted to make Sonia Sotomayor the first Latina and only the third woman to join the Supreme Court. Today also marks the 44th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a law widely heralded as our nation’s most successful and effective federal civil rights law.

The convergence of these two historical moments is an opportunity to reflect not only on the progress that has been made but the enduring role that race continues to play in our nation.  While we have heard the phrase “post-racial” tossed around, the hearings and floor debate leading up to Sotomayor’s vote have been very focused on race. A speech in which she merely acknowledges herself as a woman of Latina descent unnerved a number of Senators who fear that this will distort her ability to impartially and fairly hear cases that come before the Court.

There is no shortage of reminders that race still matters. If anything, the 44th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act provides a measuring stick that shows progress made but a great distance left to be traveled in moving our nation closer to real racial equality.  In the context of voting, the evidence shows that discrimination persists and that our nation still requires strong medicine to scourge that poison from its system. 

The issue of ongoing voting discrimination was at the heart of a closely watched case heard by the Supreme Court just this past spring — Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (NAMUDNO). The Court’s June 22nd ruling left in place a core feature of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states and jurisdictions with long histories of voting discrimination to seek federal review of new voting changes. The Court’s ruling ensures that we’ll have the tough safeguards necessary to protect the rights of minority voters. Should the Act come before the Court again, today’s Senate vote for Sotomayor may mean that any such case would be heard by a court that is more representative of the diversity of our nation.

The Voting Rights Act is a powerful defense against the real problem of voting discrimination. The provision of the Voting Rights Act at issue in the NAMUDNO case helped block more than 700 instances of discriminatory voting conduct between 1982 and 2006 — the years in which Congress closely examined the law to see whether its protections remained necessary. 

Recent cases of discriminatory voting

– Just weeks ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) blocked an effort by Texas officials in a local water district to require candidates seeking office to own land.  Such a move would have advantaged white voters while limiting access for Latino voters who are less likely to own land in this part of Texas. 

– In the town of Kilmichael, Mississippi, white officials decided to cancel local elections after a number of Black candidates qualified to run for the seats.  DOJ officials objected to the move and once the election went forward, Blacks, for the very first time, won the mayoral seat and majority of seats on the council.

– Efforts to bar students at historically black colleges from voting have also been commonplace. For more than three decades, officials in Waller County, Texas, tried to block Black students at Prairie View A & M from registering and voting.  The local prosecutor threatened to indict those students who voted, prompting the student chapter of the NAACP to recently file litigation against the intimidating and illegal conduct.   

– Intimidation also remains a significant problem.  A recent cross-burning outside of city hall in Grand Coteau, Louisiana was aimed at intimidating Black voters at a time when a Black candidate was vying for the mayoral seat held by a long-term white incumbent. 

– Leaflets were distributed throughout Black neighborhoods in Danville, Virginia, threatening to lynch African Americans and warning recipients that if they “didn’t vote a certain way certain things could happen to you.” 

– And, a federal court recently found “significant evidence of intimidation and harassment” by poll workers in Black sections of Charleston County, South Carolina of the kind that “never occurred at predominately white polling places.”

– Anti-immigrant activists, some carrying hand guns, were witnessed intimidating Latino voters in Tucson, Arizona.  Holding themselves out as law enforcement officers, the men took personal information from Latino voters and also videotaped them as they entered the polls. 

Thus, while we are hearing more commentators eager to use the label “post-racial” to describe this moment in our nation’s history, both the Sotomayor nomination hearings and the evidence of ongoing vote discrimination stand as vivid reminders that race still matters. 

Sotomayor’s placement on the Supreme Court will not only make the bench a more representative one but also bring to the Court a jurist who is exceptionally well-qualified for the position. Together with aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, today’s confirmation vote will hopefully steer our country in the right direction — perhaps inching us closer to the day where race may not matter as much as it certainly does today.