The Long Path to Equal Citizenship

BY Dennis Riley

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every citizen equal protection of the laws of the state in which that citizen — any U.S. citizen in any state for any reason — finds himself or herself.

The amendment doesn’t define equal protection, but the First amendment doesn’t define free speech, the Fifth doesn’t define due process, and the Eighth doesn’t define cruel and unusual punishment. That job is left to the courts, and it is definitely a work in progress.

Likewise, we don’t have a clear and easy-to-find statement of what it means to be a citizen entitled to equal protection. That is, are there aspects of the relationship between an individual and the state he or she resides in that rise to the level of citizenship and that do raise clear issues of equal protection? I think we can identify at least three.

The Right to Vote
Start with voting. Would anyone consider himself or herself an equal citizen if denied the right to vote? This gets to be a bit of a tricky question, of course. That’s because as important as the right to vote is, the opportunity to vote is crucial to making that right a reality.

In fact, serious enough restrictions on the opportunity to vote can quickly erode the right to vote. Even in the heyday of the suppression of the African American vote — from the end of Reconstruction to the passage of the Voting Rights Act — no Southern state formally denied those African Americans the right to vote. They just made it virtually impossible to cast a ballot by using impossible-to-pass literacy tests, poll taxes, and good old-fashioned physical and economic intimidation.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened up the opportunity for African Americans to vote, and until the Supreme Court struck down one of its most important enforcement mechanisms, no state had moved to put greater obstacles in the paths to the polls . . . for anybody. But those days are over, and state after state — including Wisconsin — has moved to make it tougher for people to vote. Photo IDs, shorter voting hours, fewer chances to vote on weekends, even moving polling places, have all been aimed at reducing the ease of showing up to vote. These restrictions may not have been aimed exclusively at African Americans, but Souls to the Polls was created by African American churches for Sunday voting, and an awful lot of Southern states reduced or eliminated Sunday voting. Besides, even if some restrictions were not aimed at African American voters, those restrictions hit those voters disproportionately, and results matter just about as much as intentions.

Then there is public education. We got into the business of widespread, basically free, and generally compulsory public education by the 1840s, and the job was always left to state and local governments.

It is hard to overestimate the historical importance of public education in the tale of upward social mobility in this country. Even before the Supreme Court held in 1896 that “separate but equal” facilities met the 14th amendment test of equal protection in public accommodations — segregated railroad cars, to be precise — Southern and even border states maintained separate school systems, if there were schools for African Americans at all.

That system continued unchanged until the Supreme Court held in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), that separate could never be equal, and it was changed only very little over the next couple of decades despite President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops in Little Rock in 1957.

Housing segregation accomplished in the North what the law had accomplished in the South, and to this day the bulk of African American children in the South and in the big and even medium-sized cities of the North go to schools where they are surrounded by other children of color.

Equal Protection
Finally, equal protection of the laws has to depend on equal enforcement of the laws. That, alas, may be the furthest away of all. Not every American city or town is a Ferguson, Mo., but even the Justice Department’s carefully worded and clearly circumscribed report on the law enforcement system in Ferguson suggested that Missouri town was not an anomaly.

If you haven’t been exposed to the mind-numbing numbers included in that report, just consider one or two. Sixty-seven percent of the city’s residents are African American — 85% percent of the citations were written to African Americans, 93% of the arrests were of African Americans, and 100% of the 60 incidents in which a police dog was commanded to attack a Ferguson citizen involved an African American. The reason we know all of this is that Michael Brown was an African American. To add insult to injury, the citations and arrests were used in part to raise money to help the cash-strapped city pay its bills, and officials in the police department exchanged racist emails all the while.

As President Barack Obama said so eloquently at the Edmund Pettis Bridge at the ceremony commemorating what has come to be called Bloody Sunday — the day that voting rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers — 2015 is not 1965, let alone 1915. So much change has come, and so much good accomplished.

John Lewis was one of the young men severely beaten on the bridge that day. He is now Representative John Lewis (D. Ga.). African Americans are prominent in every walk of life.

The small private liberal arts college I attended all those years ago, the one without a single African American student or faculty member, just said good-bye to its beloved African American president. When I pick up my grandsons at school, there are students of color in every classroom, a far cry from what I saw when I picked up my daughter 30 years ago.

As our African American President also said, however, we have a long way to go. Can anything make us hurry?

Enough out of me.

Dennis Riley has been teaching about American government and politics since the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President of the United States.

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