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As the nation pauses to reflect on the anniversaries of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, that celebration is tempered by new obstacles that threaten the enormous gains of the past 60 years.
As Barbara R. Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told ABA staffers last month in Washington, D.C.: “Racial progress is not linear. Racial progress actually zigs and zags. President Obama is re-elected in 2012, but at the same time we have the worst voter suppression in this country since the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Why is that?”
That question — as well as strategies for reducing ongoing disparities in areas like employment, education, gender equality and voting rights — will be discussed during a forum at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston. “A Turn to Justice: Examining the Dream of Brown and the Civil Rights Act,’’ sponsored by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, will be held Friday, Aug. 8, from 3:30-5 p.m. in Room 302 at the Hynes Convention Center.
ABA President Jim Silkenat will kick off the session with opening remarks. The keynote speaker will be past president of the ABA and former Michigan Supreme Court justice Dennis W. Archer Jr., of Detroit, Mich.
Reginald M. Turner Jr., chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, will moderate a panel that will include Arnwine; Kim Keenan, NAACP general counsel; Rodney Fong, academic support co-director, University of San Francisco School of Law; and Jenny Rivera, a judge on the New York Court of Appeals.
The panelists will discuss the impact of Brown and the Civil Rights Act, which addressed de jure discrimination without addressing:
Archer, who served as ABA president from 2003-04, said there are some invaluable lessons to be learned from the past and that the forum presents the opportunity to consider the progress that has been made but also highlight the unfinished work.
“We need to have this discussion around Brown vs. Board of Education for the same reason that we acknowledge and celebrate the Voting Rights Act and other acts that were signed into law by President Johnson and others as time progresses in a way to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come along” said Archer. “But if we have not yet received equality, we must remind ourselves of how important it is to keep focused on achieving those goals.”
But 60 years after Brown ended federally sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools, Turner said many students still languish in subpar schools.
“Most children of color continue to toil in separate and unequal schools, and this problem could persist for decades to come,’’ he said. “In 2007, the United States Supreme Court outlawed voluntary desegregation plans that consider race, rejecting voluntary integration plans for school districts in Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky.”
Turner added that as America becomes more diverse, “it will be crucial to our national unity and prosperity to decrease the effects of implicit bias in education and employment. The overt racial policies of America’s Jim Crow era have ended, but the insidious effects of unconscious bias continue to limit our ability to achieve equality of opportunity.”
The Civil Rights Acts was envisioned by President John F. Kennedy during a speech in June 1963 and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964. The law outlawed all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Looking back on Brown and the Civil Rights Act, Turner said some lessons are being applied today.
“I believe the corporate sector has made more progress than the educational sector, so [the Civil Rights Act] is observed more than the principles in Brown,” he said. “That is somewhat ironic given the common perceptions of the occupations of so-called liberals and conservatives.”
Turner said he believes people always will find reasons to divide – especially along racial, ethnic, religious and gender lines.
“I’m not a pessimist, however,” he said. “I believe that people of good will from all backgrounds and beliefs can create Robert Kennedy’s “ripples of hope” through intelligent practical action to bring us together and improve the human condition.”