Action Alert

Remembering the Past by Examining the Present: Justice and Social Responsibility in Modern Times

Remembering the Past by Examining the Present: Justice and Social Responsibility in Modern Times

March 25 marked the International Day of Remembrance for Victims of Slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Every year people from around the globe gather in solemn remembrance to pay their respects to the millions of lives lost and affected by slavery. In honor of the victims, a permanent memorial entitled “The Ark of Return” will be constructed and erected at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The central theme of the Day of Remembrance in 2015 focused on women and slavery. The U.N. writes:

“This year’s theme, Women and Slavery, pays tribute to the many enslaved women who endured unbearable hardships, including sexual exploitation, as well as those who fought for freedom from slavery and advocated for its abolition. The theme also celebrates the strength of enslaved women, many of whom succeeded in transmitting their African culture to their descendants despite the many abuses that they had to endure.”

Women and Girls' Mistreatment Continues

A third of the estimated 15 million Africans sold into slavery were women. These women had to not only endure the hardship and dehumanization of enslavement, but also were subjected to constant sexual exploitation. And the mistreatment continues today. Even though slavery has long been abolished and condemned, there are over 20 million victims of human trafficking today, and half of those victims are women and girls. Trafficking in persons as described by the U.S. State Department includes all criminal conduct involved in forced labor and sex trafficking, “essentially the conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service.” The most common forms of modern-day slavery are involuntary domestic servitude, bonded labor and sex trafficking. Although modern day slavery differs from the state sanctioned institution of enslavement that existed centuries ago, we must examine its history to better understand its contemporary implications.

In 2015 it is hard to imagine a time in our history where the practice of kidnapping, buying and selling human being as commodities was commonplace. Two hundred years ago the enslavement and forced labor of African native peoples was not only commonplace in America, but it formed a critical component of the national economy and social structure. Justification for this heinous practice stemmed from various sources, ranging from the pseudo “junk” science issued from our most esteemed colleges and universities to the perverted religious teachings of the Bible by plantation owners who claimed the enslaved were cursed descendants of Ham. Of course, these beliefs have since been widely refuted and no longer are acceptable in modern society. However, in light of the current struggles faced by the black community in America, one may wonder if the psychological and socio-political vestiges of slavery and institutionalized racism continue to plague our nation. Although slavery was officially abolished in the 19th century, the social, political and economic racial inequalities that slavery fostered has taken much longer to eradicate.

The disparities in wealth, education, employment and more that were generated over 246 years of enslavement have never been adequately addressed at any time in American history and continue to have an effect on its populations. Systems of prejudice that simultaneously punished communities of color while privileging white communities have had lasting affects on the American psyche and continue to influence our attitudes toward one another. Unconscious racial bias has been cited in several studies regarding practices in hiring, policing and sentencing. These biases add up to shared disadvantages amongst particular communities throughout our nation.

Shelby v. Holder

Ironically, at a time when racial disparities are coming to the forefront, many still support the notion that America has entered a “post-racial” era where racism no longer affects opportunities or achievement for people of color. A concrete manifestation of this view was made apparent in Shelby v. Holder (2013), when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which was a watershed piece of civil rights legislation that many, including Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, fought for and even died for to be ratified. The right to vote is guaranteed and foundational to all United States citizens, and any attempt to abridge that right is in violation of the Constitution. For over 300 years in America, the black community was denied the right to vote. After only 50 years, to repeal legislation that sought to redress such injustice is an affront to the fight for equality for all citizens and evokes the old American maxim: “Taxation without representation” equals slavery.

Key provisions of the VRA were Sections 4 and 5, which together mandated for particular states and jurisdictions (mostly those that have had a history of voter discrimination) to get approval from the Attorney General’s Office or the U.S. District Court before any new changes could be made to their voting laws. This preclearance was enacted in order to ensure that any changes in the voting laws in these states would not have the effect of discriminating against any persons seeking to vote. Chief Justice Roberts declared the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act to no longer be relevant today, claiming black Americans no longer face the same obstacles to voting as they did in the past. He argued that the Voting Rights Act violated the “tradition” of “equal sovereignty” of the states. However, Alabama voting rights attorney James Blacksher argues, “‘the equal sovereignty’ principle is not in the Constitution,” rather only a tradition established by the states. In Free at Last: Rejecting Equal Sovereignty and Restoring the Constitutional Right to Vote, Blacksher, along with co-author Lani Guinier, argues that Roberts’ opinion in the Voting Rights Act case is a descendant of what is widely regarded as the worst Supreme Court decision in American history: The 1857 Dred Scott case, in which the high court held that blacks, slave or free, could never be citizens of the United States. “That case is the ‘origin story’ of the ‘equal sovereignty’ principle,” the authors argue, “because the opinion by Chief Justice Roger Taney held that it would violate the sovereignty of the slave states to recognize blacks as American citizens.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed that the nation’s commitment to justice had been “disserved” by the Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder. She went on to write, “For half a century a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.” President Obama also weighed in on the decision, stating he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling. The formula that was adopted for the preclearance clause was set in 1975, and Chief Justice Roberts contended that it does not have “any logical relationship to the present day.” Interestingly enough, there have been several reported instances of voter discriminatory actions throughout the United States in recent years that contradict the Chief Justice’s notion.

Discriminatory Actions

In 2001, the all-white board of aldermen in the town of Kilmichael, Mississippi (pop. 830), canceled town elections after an unprecedented number of black candidates made it onto the ballot. When the Department of Justice (DOJ) forced an election and the town finally voted, it elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen. In 2008, Alaska attempted to pass a bill that would have required some Native Alaskan voters to travel by air or boat to cast a ballot. The state withdrew its submission after it was challenged by the DOJ under the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, 33 states ranging from Arkansas to Virginia, introduced 90 voter restrictive bills that would ultimately make it harder to exercise this inalienable right. The Supreme Court’s recent decision makes it harder to protect the voting rights of minority communities from being infringed upon by aggressive and restrictive voting bills pending in several states. The gerrymandering of districts to diminish minority voting power, the implementation of strict voter ID laws, and the elimination of pre-registration and early voting periods, are all examples of voter restrictive policies attempted or enacted in the 21st century.

Fighting Back

Fortunately, civil action groups and state lawmakers are not taking this offense sitting down. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has consistently fought for minority voting rights by representing defendant-interveners in several cases, such as South Carolina v. United States, where approval of the restrictive bill would impose significant burdens on African-American voters. Voter ID laws work disproportionately to disenfranchise African-American voters, since 25 percent of African-American voting age citizens lack a government issued ID, compared to only 8 percent of white voting age citizens. Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged that his office and the Justice Department will “not hesitate to take swift enforcement action — using every legal tool that remains available to us — against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court's ruling by hindering eligible citizens' full and free exercise of the franchise.”

Congress recently proposed measures aimed at ending modern day slavery, reinstating key parts of the VRA, and investigating proposals for the reparations of African-Americans. The bipartisan bill S. 533 – End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015, recently introduced by senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would authorize $250 million in U.S. funds to leverage a $1.5 billion global fund to combat human trafficking around the world — making this legislation the most dramatic increase in funding for anti-human trafficking efforts. H.R. 885 – Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), seeks to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by revising the requirements for determining states covered by the preclearance clause.

On March 25, as we paused in remembrance of those who suffered under the yoke of enslavement, we made sure not to lose sight of those currently facing the terrors of human trafficking, and of the lasting consequences of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Whether it be the chattel slavery of the 18th century or the human trafficking epidemic of the 21st century, the dehumanization of another person by reducing them to a commodity remains a pivotal issue confronting our “modern” civilization. The U.N.’s Ark of Return should serve as a firm reminder of the great mistakes of our past so that we do not allow them to repeat in our present.

Posted or updated: 4/17/2015 11:00:00 PM
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Suggested Pages:

*Racial Justice

*Human Trafficking

*Action Alerts

Take Action:

  • Contact your Congressional Representative (Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to support bills: S. 553 – End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015, H.R. 885 – Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, and H.R. 40 – Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act (2015). Together these laws can significantly help in the fights to finally end slavery, defeat racial discrimination and address some of the unrequited claims of the black community.
  • View the list of events that took place on March 25, sponsored by the United Nations and paying homage to the victims of the international slave trade.
  • View the short video, The Ark of Return: Lest We Forget on the United Nations YouTube page.
  • ReadThe Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.
  • Watch the PBS Documentary American Denial to learn more about the lasting effects of racial bias.
  • Read “Global Migration and the Quest for Justice,” #6021, pages 705 – 706, in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).