Race and Rights in Contemporary US Politics

America has a long history of Civil Rights in relation to race which includes slavery, Jim Crow the struggles of the mid 20th century and the ongoing issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter and the long history of the treatment of Native Americans a

The legacy of slavery is still apparent in contemporary American society. While the end of slavery and the victories of the civil rights era in the 1960s and at last the election of a black president have all been hailed as a significant moment, they have also seemed like a false dawn. Major concerns and conflict occur, with persistently high levels of racial inequality and racism.  The deathof George Floyd and the Black LIves Matter protests indicate that race is very much  a live issue in contemporary America. 

Methods Used by Racial Rights Campaigners

From Rosa Parks to Black Lives matter demonstrations and civil resistance have been the part of the fight against racism.

Since the Shelby v Holder ruling and major concerns over the words and policies of President Trump. The NAACP has held a series of demonstrations across southern states in particular. Their Moral Mondays demonstrations, focused particularly in North Carolina, campaign against a variety of concerns including state-based restrictions on minority voting, such as the introduction of photo ID laws and felony voting restrictions. In 2014 the NAACP organised a peaceful sit in at a GOP leaders office in the state legislature in Raleigh, in which 14 people were arrested. 2020 saw major demonstrations and protests after the murder of George Floyd but BLM had started as a result of many similar cases. 

Legal methods

The 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been used by pressure groups such the NAACP and  The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights group, to successfully win cases. By using the courts and taking legal action (litigation), pressure groups can challenge federal or state governments by initiating a court case themselves. Alternatively, pressure groups can submit amicus briefs, in which they provide written evidence and argument to the court in a particular case. Examples:

Voter registration drives

A major problem for equal rights campaign has been the low turn out of black voters. One problem was the unwillingness of black people to register to vote. Voter-registration campaigns, which expanded quickly, supported by groups such as the NACCP. This involved educating the public in their voting rights, explaining voting processes and helping people with registration.  In the 1950s this was met with fierce resistance, with violence, death threats and lynching, however, the campaign continued to gather pace through the 1960s. 

In the 2016 elections, Native American groups were involved in organising and maximising voting under the banner of nativevote.org (assisting with voter registration) and Get-Out-The-Native-Vote (GOTNV) (election protection and education).

The effectiveness and influence of racial rights campaigns

League of Women Voters - Registration Drives 2020

Voting rights

Although t he right to vote, regardless of race, was established by the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, southern states continued to prevent racial minority voting by using Jim Crow laws — the collective name given to any laws which continued to restrict minority rights — voting was heavily restricted for the black population. As a result black voter registration was close to zero. With many states requiring voter registration to stand for public office, millions of people were locked out of the process of representative democracy.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended separate facilities, black rights groups focused on ensuring voting rights. This culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which overturned the Jim Crow laws inhibiting minority voting. It prevented any state or local government from creating practices that led to racial discrimination in voting. In addition, the Federal Justice Department would vet all state laws to prevent any discriminatory practice.

Hispanic voting power has become increasingly significant. In 2012;  Obama's  share of the Hispanic vote increased from 67 to 71 per cent with an increase in turnout. Hillary Clinton was unable to hold on to this share of the vote, falling back to 65 per cent — possibly a major factor in her failure to win the presidency. The Hispanic influence on voting is rising, with 27.3 million Latinos eligible to vote in 2016 — an increase of 4 million from 2012. 

In the election of 2020 Trump succeed in increasing his support form Hispanic voters although the much larger proportion voted for Biden. Trump's appeal to traditional values of family, anti abortion and law and order may explain this.  However, in the run up to the election and during the election the issue of voter suppression remained relevant. 

There is far greater minority representation today but still a long way to go.

The House has become more diverse at a faster rate than the Senate, a CNBC analysis shows, but both chambers are still predominantly white.  The number of nonwhite lawmakers has gradually increased in the House at a faster rate than in the Senate.  Congress overall is the most diverse it’s ever been. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2019, 60.4% of Americans identified as white only, excluding those who identified as Hispanic or Latino.  But about 79% of Congress is white, according to  Pew Research data.


Immigration reform has been a hotly contested topic in recent years. The measures for reform can be broadly grouped into those calling for an amnesty and those calling for greater border control and enforcement. A range of reforms have been attempted in recent years, the most notable of these include:

·    DREAM Act (since 2001): This would have given citizenship to those who had been brought into the USA as minors and had subsequently graduated from high school and university or undertaken 2 years' military service.

·    Bush 'guest worker' scheme (2004): This allowed a range of immigrants, in shortage areas, to gain temporary work visas.

·    Secure Fences Act (2006): This aimed to improve border defences by building a 700-mile fence along the US border with Mexico, and widening other security measures.

·    Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (2006): This looked to both increase border security and provide a path to citizenship for long-term undocumented immigrants, while also extending the 'guest worker' scheme.


Some groups including the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino pressure group in the USA, have called for a path to citizenship for the existing 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the USA. This was the basis of a 2001 bipartisan DREAM Act. However, the bill which was passed by the House in December 2010 failed to overcome a filibuster led by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who argued that the bill amounted to a reward for lawbreaking

Border control

A number of conservatives continue to call for a greater focus on policing the borders, with tighter immigration laws requiring local law-enforcement officials to question those they suspect of breaking the law, and harsher penalties for those found employing undocumented immigrants. However, the recent Arizona v USA Supreme Court ruling severely restricted the Arizona SBI070 law, which looked to target these issues at a state level. This ruling limited the scope of state officials to tackle immigration and arguably gutted state-based legislation which looked to take a harsh line on immigration. The sensitive nature of this topic, which many argue strikes at the heart of states' rights, was seen in the verdict of Justice Kennedy, who wrote the 'State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law'. In response to the ruling Obama was quick to call for Congress to adopt a comprehensive, and national, immigration reform package as he claimed 'the patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system'.

Yet the continued partisan nature of this debate is highlighted by the fact that no action has been taken by the Obama administration against sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with the federal government on immigration matters. Indeed a spokeswoman for Attorney General Eric Holder said there was a difference between 'not enforcing federal law, as so-called sanctuary cities have done, and a state passing its own immigration policy that actively interferes with federal law'.

The increasing significance of this issue is highlighted by the fact that some have called immigration 'the new slavery', in the way that it has come to divide America. Thus future elections will in part be fought by those liberals who feel immigration is a national issue, and support the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and those conservatives who fear 'big government', and invoke the rights of states in deciding their own approach to dealing with immigration.'

Affirmative action

Affirmative action generally means giving preferential treatment to minorities in admissions to universities or employment opportunities for government and private businesses. More specifically, it refers to a range of policies originally developed to correct decades of discrimination and to give disadvantaged minorities a boost. Some say that the diversity of American society today, as opposed to that of 50 years ago, indicates that the programmes have been a success. In contrast, others, particularly conservatives, think the policies were never, or are no longer, needed and that they lead to more problems than they solve.

History of affirmative action

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965 some Americans have argued that the USA established a clear and legal framework for equality of opportunity, in that all races were now free from legal discrimination, ensuring de facto equality.

However, the focus soon shifted away from formal and legal equality towards more substantive equality. Many liberals argued that there was a need for equality of outcome to level the playing field for previously disadvantaged groups. For many, there was now a need for America to address the fact that African Americans in particular were at a historical disadvantage, as they lagged behind whites in terms of income, employment and educational attainment.

To those who supported substantive equality (including President Johnson), the 1964 and 1965 Acts were the beginnings, not the end, of a campaign for equality. A series of policies were adopted that became known as affirmative action. The measures established ranged from 'soft' measures to target job adverts at minorities to 'hard' measures which included giving quotas and preferences to these groups.

Affirmative action came under immediate scrutiny from those who were critical of what they deemed to be positive discrimination and an increase in federal government intervention. From the 1970s onwards the policies of affirmative action were opposed by those politicians and commentators who saw it as merely reverse discrimination.

In addition, since 1978, a series of Supreme Court decisions have gone some way to water down and limit the forms of affirmative action deemed constitutional, without explicitly declaring affirmative action to be unconstitutional. The most notable of these rulings are listed below.

·    Regents of the University of California v Bakke (1978) accepted that race could be one factor, among many, in university admissions but could not directly disadvantage majority applicants.

·     Adarand Constructors v Pena (1995) re-established the need for 'strict scrutiny' to ensure that federal affirmative action programmes had a specific purpose and justification.

·     Gratz v Bollinger (2003) declared the University of Michigan's racial quota system of admissions unconstitutional as it was 'too mechanistic' in awarding all minorities 20 of the 150 points needed for admission.

·     Grutter v Bollinger (2003) ruled that the University of Michigan's Law School admissions programme was constitutional as it used an 'individualised' affirmative action programme, in which race was only a '131us factor'. Although it upheld as constitutional the continued use of certain affirmative action programmes, it did suggest that this may only be necessary for a further 25 years.

·     Fisher v Texas (2013) did little to change the existing law and instead upheld the Bollinger cases and referred the matter back to the lower courts. Many commentators awaiting this decision had wrongly believed it would issue a definitive ruling of the constitutionality of affirmative action.

As well as Supreme Court rulings a series of initiatives and propositions in recent years has meant the issue of affirmative action's place in the USA has become further clouded. By 2010 at least five states had seen the successful introduction of measures to ban affirmative action, including Michigan Proposal 2, banning its use in public employment, education or contracting in 2006, and Arizona Proposition 107, which was passed by a vote of over 60% in 2010.

You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say "you are free to compete with all the others", and still believe that you have been completely fair.

President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

The public policy of affirmative action provision could be seen as a major factor in the rise of educational standards and the growth of black middles classes in the United States. Without this assistance, arguably patterns of inequality would continue to repeat themselves much more strongly. The impact of racial rights groups in protecting Affirmative Action has started to wane, however, as such programmes are being challenged by state governments. Many states, such as California, Texas and Michigan have ended affirmative action. In several states the provision of Affirmative Action has been challenged by state initiatives. This is seen in the American Civil Rights Institute case study below.

Case study The decline of Affirmative Action

There are a number of arguments surrounding affirmative action beyond the extent of its success. There are many criticisms about its desirability, regardless of its effectiveness in creating equality.

For some racial minority members, AA is patronising. Others argue that it is misplaced and measures to improve equality should focus on race, not class. When Obama was asked if his daughters should benefit from AA, he said they should not — but he still defended AA.

Debate:Is it time to end affirmative action?

 Arguments for AA 

It helps reduce racist attitudes by helping

overcome de facto segregation. Greater interaction between racial groups can overcome prejudice.

It works. Where AA has been ended, there's

has been a decline in racial minority

enrolment in top colleges.

Promotes diversity: In her dissenting opinion, in the 2013 Fisher v Texas ruling, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg wrote about the 'educational benefits of a student body diversity'.

·   Levels the playing field: Given the huge economic and social disadvantages that many ethnic minorities face, affirmative action is seen as a way to ensure equality of outcome. Indeed it was highlighted by Bowen and Bock, in their book The Shape of the River, how race-based university admission practices can successfully advance the life chances of minority students.

·   Breaks down racial stereotypes: The opportunities gained, directly or indirectly, through affirmative action have given minorities the chance to show they are every bit as capable as whites in a range of fields.

·   Compensation: In the words of President Johnson, at Howard University in 1960, 'it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates'.

      Arguments against AA

.It has the wrong focus — on college education and 

jobs, not on early years. By the time kids grow up 

their life chances have already been damaged by 

poor education and social surroundings.

AA has not worked. Racial inequality still persists today. Despite AA, there is a major gap between racial groups in the top colleges (those which are selective).

Reverse discrimination : Conservatives believe that the broad nature of affirmative action programmes, even without quotas, can lead to rich minorities being given preference over poor white applicants.

·    Lower standards and motivation: A 2011 report, by the Education Trust, pointed out that within 6 years of enrolling for a degree, the graduation rates for white students stood at 62% while it was only 51% for Latinos and 40% for African Americans.

·   Prevents a truly colour-blind society: Some, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, argue affirmative action is condescending and insulting; in fact he stated 'Any effort, policy or program that in some way accepts the notion that Blacks are inferior is a non-starter with me.'

·   Undermines minority achievement: Too often, minority achievements are demeaned by affirmative action.


Alternatives to Affirmative Action


·    There has recently been a strong push among American states to ban racial or gender preferences. Much of this has been a reaction to the controversial and unprecedented decisions in the Bollinger cases, sponsored by the conservative pressure group the Centre for Individual Rights. These cases effectively declared mechanistic' racial quotas unconstitutional, without specifically declaring affirmative action unconstitutional. In particular, the Grutter v Bollinger case, by a slender 5-4 majority, upheld affirmative action but stated that admissions must be flexible, and reaffirmed that they could not be crude , because race must be considered as one among many other admission criteria.

·      Many conservative groups, such as the Center for Equal Opportunity, call for a complete ban on all forms of affirmative action and have led attempts to legally challenge affirmative action.

·      Florida governor, Jeb Bush, decided in 1999 to abolish affirmative action with his 'One Florida' initiative. Although this led to widespread demonstrations, conservatives would counter criticisms with the fact that over the decade from 1999 to 2009, total state enrolment among Latinos rose from 13.8% to 18%, while black enrolment remained relatively static at 13.6%.

Class- and income-based action

·      Some opponents argue that affirmative action benefits middle- and upper-class minorities at the expense of lower-class Caucasians. Thus some argue that there is a need for class-based, or income-based, affirmative action which does not consider race or ethnicity. Writing in the Washington Post in 2012, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior advisor for the liberal think tank The Century Foundation, called for universities to 'vigorously pursue race-neutral alternatives such as socioeconomic affirmative action'. However, the African American Policy Forum believes that: 'Race-conscious affirmative action remains necessary to address "race-based obstacles.'

School and cultural reform

·    A number of largely conservative individuals argue that the inability of minorities to compete is because those minorities need to be 'Americanised' and encouraged to conform more closely to the mainstream cultural norms of the USA.

·    The Texan Ten Percent Plan ensures that minority students are not competing with students from schools that are better funded and resourced. Since its introduction, total admissions of Latinos to Texas universities have jumped from 14% in 1996 to 24% in 2012.


·      Since 1989 Congressman John Conyers Jnr from Michigan has introduced a bill every year to study the case for reparations. He urges the federal government to undertake a thorough review which will lead to financial compensation to the descendants of African slavery.

·      Though calls for reparations do not hold widespread appeal in America, the 'Millions for Reparations' march, in 2002, did see over 50,000 people descend on Washington DC.