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The Opposite of Progress

I was fascinated with the concept of time travel as a kid.

In elementary school I pieced together discarded scraps of poster board, random nuts and bolts, and a fan to create my own time machine. I combined that creation with my love of reading to imagine what it was like to live in historical eras.

My daydreams transported me to the sixties to march alongside children in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. From the safety of my grandparents’ basement, I imagined joining other young people who risked their own safety to demand the most basic rights of American citizenship. Rights such as access to a quality education and unfettered freedom.

Whenever I was bullied at school, I would rush home to hop into my time machine and zoom to a different universe where everyone got along and where peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were in abundance. Time travelers need fuel.

I devoured Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time, envious that Meg Murray discovered the secret of the tesseract and the ability to move across time and space with ease. When the film “Back to the Future” was released, I was mesmerized by the ways Marty McFly traveled back in time to right past wrongs.

Even at a young age, I was deeply enamored by a Twi (Ghanaian) concept called Sankofa that loosely translates to “go back and get it.” Sankofa is a reminder that understanding the past can help us navigate the present while preparing for the future.

My interest in going back in time was built on the idea that revisiting the past could help us build a better future. Through pop culture artifacts like the children’s series “The Magic School Bus” and “Land of the Lost,” we could escape to the past to figure out what was wrong and what needed to be done. Over the last week, however, a slew of Supreme Court decisions has firmly returned our country to past eras of discrimination that even Doc Brown can’t save us from.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. An act that singlehandedly transformed American politics by ushering in more American Indians, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as voters, candidates and legislators. The Shelby decision struck down the formula used to determine which jurisdictions needed to vet proposed changes to their voting qualifications by the Justice Department before taking effect.

Within hours of the ruling, states like Texas and North Carolina instituted new rules that made it more difficult for citizens to access the simplest tool of democracy: the vote. Rules such as restrictive voter-id requirements, the shortening or elimination of early voting and the reduction of polling places in urban communities had an immediate impact on the paths to voting for thousands of Americans.

Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court held that: “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting…These improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act.”

In essence, the court held that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been so effective in addressing racial discrimination that the formula used to identify “covered jurisdictions” was no longer necessary. And yet the exceedingly long wait times to vote in places like New Mexico and Arizona during the 2016 primaries made it clear that the Shelby decision had, in fact, erected strong barriers to voting for communities in greatest need of effective representation.

Fast forward to 2018 and the court has allowed gerrymandered districts in Texas and North Carolina to stand. These maps, which limit the influence of communities of color and enhance racial discrimination, will have a tremendous impact on this fall’s midterm elections. The partisan nature of the maps and the subsequent Supreme Court endorsement of them returns us to a pre-Voting Rights Act of 1965 era when communities of color were denied the ability to select candidates of their choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1944 case Korematsu v. U.S. that Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese American citizens as constitutional. Fred Korematsu argued that the act violated his rights as an American citizen under the 14th Amendment. He was convicted of failing to comply with the order and sentenced to five years probation and internment at a California camp.

In spite of an earlier review, the ruling stood until this week, when Roberts wrote that “Korematsu … has been convicted of an act not commonly thought a crime….It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.”

While the court’s recognition of Korematsu could be viewed as progress, Roberts’ statement came as the court upheld President Trump’s ban on travel from some Muslim countries, Venezuela, and North Korea. The same North Korea where weeks prior, President Trump had praised its leader as a “very smart guy who loves his people.”

In her scathing dissent, the wise Latina Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “The United States of America is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty. Our Founders honored that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. The Court’s decision today fails to safeguard that fundamental principle. It leaves undisturbed a policy first advertised openly and unequivocally as a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ because the policy now masquerades behind a façade of national-security concerns.”

The court has returned the country back to 1960, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy, Jr. had to dispel concerns about his religion. The court upholds Americans’ irrational fear of Islam at a time when conservative elites call for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment that prohibits houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates. This retreat from the First Amendment’s guarantee of a freedom of and freedom from religion reverses decades of progress toward true religious freedom.

Labor unions have long been an effective vehicle for helping workers from underrepresented communities make inroads into the middle class. To be sure, unions have contended with issues of exclusion and discrimination along the lines of race and ethnicity. However, protecting the workers’ rights in a rapidly changing economy takes on a renewed sense of urgency in light of the court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. This decision upheld the view that workers who do not pay into unions are still entitled to benefit from the protections and efforts of unions. The ruling overturned the prior holding that free-speech rights of individual rights were less important than preventing the “free rider problem” that allows people to benefit from the work of unions without contributing to their expenses. Beyond the workplace, the ruling may have a significant impact on future elections by limiting the ability of unions to advocate on behalf of workers and their policy preferences.

The slate of 2018 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court has a direct impact on questions previously settled in American history. The failure to protect access to voting, representation and labor return us to bygone eras when the interests of underrepresented groups were deemed insignificant. These rulings, coupled with the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, reinforce the need to address the generational consequences of contemporary political decisions that may push us back in time rather than moving us forward. I guess it’s true that we should be careful what we wish for.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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