Law Day addresses inequity, social justice

Recorder/David Rainville
Buz Eisenberg leads a panel discussion by attorney and Smith College Director of Institutional Diversity and Equity Pamela Nolan Young, Western Massachusetts ACLU Director Bill Newman, and Amilcar Shabazz, professor of Afro-American studies at UMass Amherst Wednesday at the annual Law Day at Greenfield Community College.

Recorder/David Rainville Buz Eisenberg leads a panel discussion by attorney and Smith College Director of Institutional Diversity and Equity Pamela Nolan Young, Western Massachusetts ACLU Director Bill Newman, and Amilcar Shabazz, professor of Afro-American studies at UMass Amherst Wednesday at the annual Law Day at Greenfield Community College.

GREENFIELD — Though there have been many milestones of progress in the fight for civil rights, there is still quite a way to go.

Fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech,” an expert panel assembled by the Franklin County Bar Association discussed the progress made and road ahead at its annual Law Day Wednesday.

“This is the first time in history that economic status is a better predictor of success than race,” said Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura.

Much of the Law Day panel’s discussion centered around matters involving race and socio-economic standing. Discrimination, the panel agreed, still exists in several forms.

Attorney Pamela Nolan Young, adviser to the president of Smith College and director of institutional diversity and equity at Smith, reminded the audience of an ongoing Supreme Court case. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Abigail Fisher contends that she was denied admission into the university in 2008 because of her race.

Fisher is white.

The case, said Nolan Young, will decide whether race can be used as a factor in college admission policies. Nolan Young said policies that give preference to minorities can foster diversity.

“Diversity helps schools have a more creative, nimble student body, and reflects the changing demographics and our ability to be a player on a diverse world stage,” she said.

She added that, while race may be a factor in some admissions decisions, it’s not the only one.

Panel member Amilcar Shabbaz, professor of African American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, agreed.

An African American and former University of Texas at Austin student, he said he never felt that his race played into his acceptance.

He recalled his graduate school’s reaction to Hopwood v. Texas, the first successful challenge to a college’s affirmative action policy. The case was brought by four white people who were denied admission to the University of Texas Law School at Austin.

“The chancellor and president of the university of Houston (where I attended graduate school) called his leadership team together, and told them about the court’s decision,” he said. “He said ‘Don’t do a damn thing differently’ in issues of recruiting and retaining un-represented groups.”

The university’s president, said Shabbaz, wondered how far the anti-affirmative-action decision would reach. Should the school return donations and scholarships meant for minorities?

Nolan Young pondered the idea of a color blind admissions policy, which would focus more on applicants’ wealth, rather than race, as a measure of how disadvantaged they may be.

Though these types of cases are viewed by some as steps taken backward in the fight for equality, Shabbaz and others agreed that, on the whole, a lot of progress has been made.

While these cases deal with “reverse discrimination,” others deal with the dissolution of ethnically-centered voting blocks.

Take, for example, gerrymandering, the practice of diluting a minority or other group’s vote by strategically drawing district lines.

In 2006, the precincts of Calera, Ala. were redrawn without federal approval, ousting the city’s only black councillor. The federal government stepped in, and ordered the lines redrawn. Shelby County, in which Calera is found, challenged the order. Shelby County (Ala.) v. Holder, now being heard in the Supreme Court, challenges that decision and, by extension, the Voting Acts of 1965.

“It’s a test case, brought by the right wing to try to cut back the rights in the voting act,” said Bill Newman, a civil rights lawyer and director of the Western Massachusetts Office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And they may just succeed.”

A section of the voting act, he said, requires that the federal Department of Justice approve any changes to election procedures in many states, most in the South and Southwest.

The Supreme Court decided to hear the case because “overt racial discrimination persists in the covered districts.”

Voting rights, said Newman, are hard-won, and not just by women and minority ethnic groups that won them in the last century.

“Our founding fathers, not founding mothers, did not believe in true democracy,” said Newman. “They wanted representatives who were voted in by white men who owned property.”

Less than 4 percent of the country’s population actually voted for George Washington, he said.

“Since 1789, the U.S. has increasingly allowed participation in the democratic process,” said Newman. Of 27 amendments to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights, he said, 12 dealt directly with people’s rights to vote. The last, in 1971, gave every citizen ages 18 and up the right to vote.

If Shelby County wins its case, he said, it will be a major setback.

Further progress, said Shabbaz, will require vigilance.

“We need to go back and redouble our struggle,” he said. “We need to follow the (law) suits, and catch instances of voting or educational discrimination, and push them to our higher courts.”

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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