7 Court Rulings And Policies That Still Influence The Lives Of African Americans Today
The laws and Supreme Court rulings that continue to shape the lives of Black people in America today
February 15, 2019 at 2:09 am
When we look at Black history throughout Black History Month, we must reflect on the legislation and Supreme Court rulings that have played an invaluable role in the current structure in the lives of Black Americans today. Legislation within the United States has been an active force in limiting the freedoms of Black people throughout the years by systematically carving out various components of Black American lives, from HBCUs to predominantly Black neighborhoods. Examining the significant legislation and court rulings that have influenced the progression of African American history recognizes Black survival and the creation of Black American culture in the midst of the institutional powers never working in their favor.
Here's a combination of seven Supreme Court cases and acts of legislation that changed history and still impact Black Americans today.
1. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807
Congress enacted this law to prevent any new slaves from being brought into the United States. Although the act did not physically stop slavery from happening within the U.S., its enactment contributed largely to the end of the transatlantic slave trade. With growing populations of enslaved Black people able to sustain the country’s economy, this act made a clear political distinction between bringing enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean and owning enslaved people as property.
2. The 13th Amendment
In 1865, the 13th Amendment overturned decisions, such as the legality of slavery established via the Dred Scott v. Sanford case. It reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," essentially abolishing slavery — except as punishment for a crime. The verbiage in the 13th Amendment has been used as justification for mass incarceration, which effectively operates as a modern-day slavery machine. To date, Black people are incarcerated at a rate that's five times higher than white people.
3. The Morris Land Grant Colleges Act of 1890
When this act was first made into law in 1862, it granted federal funding to those who sought land to build higher education institutions. Once built and opened, these colleges and universities refused to admit Black people. After complaints of racial discrimination, another land grant act was passed in 1890, forcing each state that sought or received federal funding for these land grants to prove that their denial of Black Americans into their institutions was not based on race. If it was discovered that racial discrimination played into the assessment of applications, then a higher education institution had a choice: They could either return their federal funding or build a university that catered to Black students. Ultimately, this led to the development of historically Black colleges and universities across the southeastern U.S., which still remain intact today.
4. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruled that schools could no longer segregate students by race. The case, which actually was a combination of three other cases related to school segregation, was brought forth by Oliver Brown, who sued the Board of Education of Topeka, KS, on behalf of his daughter, after she was denied admittance to a white elementary school. Brown brought attention to the inequality in school funding and resources, as well as quality education between all-white and all-Black schools. Consequently, the case debunked the practice of "separate but equal, " which was exercised to justify segregation, validating the disproportionate quality between the amenities, facilities, and fundamental supplies used in Black and white schools. Although this decision allowed for the full integration of public schools, remnants of the history of segregation is still evident in public schools based in predominantly Black neighborhoods, with many reports of neglect and poorly funding.
5. Loving v. Virginia
Richard and Mildred Loving’s 1967 court case in Virginia set the precedent for overturning the criminalization of interracial marriage, regardless of what state did the officiating. After writing a letter to the attorney general about their sentencing in Virginia, the case was fought all the way up to the district courts, which ruled in their favor. Ultimately, this resulted in the removal of harsh punishments given to Black people in interracial marriages, as their own sentences were often more egregious than their white partners.
6. Fair Housing Act of 1968
Passed in 1968 — a week after the assassination of equal housing advocate Martin Luther King Jr. — this act legally eliminated all discrimination against Black people who wanted to buy or rent property, especially in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even after its enactment, however, the homeownership rate for Black people has reportedly been on the decline since 2001.
7. The 15th Amendment
After the 15th Amendment states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Passed in 1870, it granted all American males the right to vote regardless of their race. Though passage of this amendment was a huge victory, it wasn’t fully enforced, as many Black men still faced some barriers, like poll taxes and literacy tests that prevented them from participating fully in the electoral process. Today, voter suppression remains, with new tactics in place coupled with the constant neglect of Black voters’ needs.
When talking about Black disenfranchisement, it's important to also take into consideration how society has failed to uphold the legislation and court rulings specifically designed to support the prosperity of the Black community. What this shows is that the legislative system has been an ineffective method of social change. In spite of being used to establish equality, Black people have still left behind this enforcement, hindering progress of the community in order to advance white superiority. Instead, laws like these have been used to target Black communities rendering its justice unreliable.
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