When it comes to race relations, this past week was one that suggested things aren't getting any better.
First there was celebrity chef Paula Deen in a professional tailspin after acknowledging in a sworn deposition that she had used the N word. Worse, I thought, was her admission that she once had thoughts of planning a plantation-themed wedding for her brother, Bubba. ("Yes, I did say that I would love for Bubba to experience a very Southern-style wedding, and we did that. We did that.")
Then came the start of the George Zimmerman trial, in which the neighborhood watchman faces second-degree murder charges for having shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Quoting Zimmerman as he tailed Martin, the first words uttered by prosecutor John Guy were: "F-ing punks. These a-holes always get away." The prosecutor was attempting to show that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin, even though the trial court had prohibited him from using the words racial profiling. Guy said, "He profiled him as someone who was about to commit a crime in his neighborhood, and then he acted on it, and that's why we're here." As the trial began, prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel testified that her friend Martin referred to Zimmerman as a "creepy- a- cracker."
Next came a pair of Supreme Court rulings, each decided by a 5-4 margin. One gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires nine states, mostly Southern, and parts of others, to obtain federal clearance before tinkering with voting procedures. Another ruling upheld affirmative action only in narrow circumstances and after imposing strict scrutiny.
Considering that the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized by overwhelming margins in 2006 (390-33 in the House, 98-0 in the Senate), it would seem as if Congress supports the ideals of the legislation and could easily update the formula that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his colleagues found dated. But there's a big difference between what politicians will do when the lights are on and the votes are cast, and what goes on behind closed doors when sausage is being made.
When I opined on the radio that the collection of these headlines made me realize that race relations aren't where we would all hope they would be, and might be hampered by the changing demographics of the nation, my comment prompted a noteworthy response.
Melissa from Dallas was listening to me as she dropped off her son at pre-K on Tuesday. I was focused on the affirmative-action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sued after being denied admission at UT, claiming that minorities with inferior qualifications were admitted in her stead. In an unusually brief opinion (13 pages), the court narrowly upheld affirmative action but remanded the case to the appellate court for additional review. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that there needs to be a showing that "no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."
I made what I thought was a practical, political observation, namely that if affirmative action is running out of support in 2013, imagine how hard it will be to defend the necessity come 2050, when whites will collectively be a minority in comparison with people of color. Melissa responded that there were more important considerations than the raw numbers in demographics.
"The reason affirmative action exists is because for 300 years we had legalized slavery. And then we had another 100 years of segregation based on Jim Crow," she reminded.
She thought it would be grossly premature to say that after that many years of legalized discrimination based on one factor - race - it's now time to get rid of affirmative action.
I was sufficiently intrigued to continue our conversation by e-mail. It turns out that Melissa is Melissa Malonson, a senior civil rights attorney for the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. She was speaking for herself, and not on behalf of the government. Her passion for the Fisher case stems from having graduated in the UT Law School's Class of 1999, the last class to enter the school before Hopwood v. Texas. Hopwood was the first successful affirmative-action challenge to university admissions since the famed Bakke case. It resulted in the top 10 percent rule in Texas, where the top of every class in the Lone Star State is assured admission to a state university.
"I was one of only 20-plus blacks in law school at UT. And there were only seven black males in the entire class that followed me in law school, the Class of 2000," she said.
More important than just population data, she said, will be the questions of who is then running the institutions, and who is running the country?
Wherever we are in race relations, last week has proved that the Supreme Court is wrong. In the opinion released Tuesday neutering the Voting Rights Act, Roberts wrote that Congress "reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day."
If only he were correct.