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Is race just too difficult an issue?

Elinor Tatum | 6/27/2013, 12:41 p.m. | Updated on 6/27/2013, 12:41 p.m.

This last session of the United States Supreme Court dealt with many momentous cases. The issues ran the gamut from the Voting Rights Act to gay rights to affirmative action and beyond. There was so much at stake, and the American public waited with baited breath as the justices handed down decisions that made people want to ask, why did they rule on some cases and just punt on others? Is race just too difficult to deal with?

As this week unfolded, decisions came in daily, starting Monday with a decision on affirmative action. While the court emphasized the need for diversity in the classroom, it still punted by sending the decision back to the lower court. The court preserved the right for universities to use race as one of the factors that admission is based on, but at the same time, the court said that the lower court must use stricter standards when considering these measures.

We live in a multicultural, multiracial society, and for our students to see the best of what America has to offer, all of us need to be represented in our educational system and in our institutions of higher learning. As Justice Anthony Kennedy observed in his opinion about the need for a diverse student body, diversity “serves values beyond race alone, including enhanced classroom dialogue and the lessening of racial isolation and stereotypes.” So, at the end of this session, we still have affirmative action, but when will the text test or the ineluctable trial come along? Will we be able to ensure diversity in the months and years to come?

On Tuesday, the most damning of the decisions came down: the Voting Rights case, Shelby County v. Holder. In this case, the Court has held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and basically told Congress, “You deal with it.” While the justices eviscerated this section, it did not rule on Section 5 and the preclearance provision, which requires affected states seeking any voting changes or procedures to have them approved by the Justice Department or a federal court in the nation’s capital. Even so, Section 5 cannot be effectively enforced at the moment. The court said that the formula used is outdated. But now it throws the question back to Congress as to what the new formula should be and what states and municipalities still need to be watched over. The issue of voting rights now gets thrown smack dab right into the center of an election year, during which time our Congress will have to decide what the new formula will be. The real question is what congressional delegation is going to allow its state or part of its state to be kept on a watchdog list? We all know that the Voting Rights Act as it is and Section 4 in particular have been the difference in the disenfranchisement of thousands versus the whims of a few. Without these protections, the fight for civil rights and the gains we have made over the last 50 years will all be for naught. Next year’s election cycle, the critical midterm for Congress will be telling; what happens with voting rights will directly affect what will happen in American politics. This decision could lead to a swing that none of us were expecting, one in which recovery may take years.