Voting Rights Act: democracy’s umbrella


VOTE4Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

 -President Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965

These words preceded the historic August 6, 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act. Today is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing, which celebrates the significant enfranchisement of voters but also reminds us of our responsibility to relentlessly protect this fundamental right of democracy.

In a special message, President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA), protecting African Americans’ ability to vote. Until that point, southern states had imposed racist voting laws, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, specifically designed to create barriers for African American voters.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders previously pressured Johnson to pass voting rights legislation, but despite his sympathetic stance, Johnson could not reconcile the political landscape with his desire to aid the Civil Rights movement.  Johnson’s presidential opponent Senator Barry Goldwater was already gaining traction in southern states by questioning the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill.

Only after America witnessed police assaulting nonviolent Selma marchers did Johnson have the popular mandate to deliver his iconic speech. It was the fortunate collision of a forward-looking president, brave Alabama activism, and horrific police brutality that allowed a politically divided country to pass the VRA on this day in 1965.

On a state level, activists and organizers have worked to build on the impact of the VRA. In 2009, Solid Ground’s advocacy branch, the Statewide Poverty Action Network, joined with the ACLU of Washington to pass the Voting Rights Restoration Act, which restored voting rights to approximately 400,000 previously incarcerated people in our state.

VOTE3

Solid Ground staff & volunteers join CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr. to help get out the vote.

Marcy Bowers, Poverty Action Director, said: “The legacy of the VRA is as important today as it was 50 years ago. Our country still struggles to make peace with its history of slavery and racism. We see this in the news daily: members of the African American and Latino communities dying at the hands of a militarized police force, brave activists demanding change, and a federal government struggling to find the political will to make the needed changes.

“Because of the disproportionate number of people of color in our criminal justice system, this law greatly expanded voting rights for many people of color in our state. Since 2009, Poverty Action’s election efforts have included a special focus on reaching and educating these voters about their rights, as well as registering and engaging them in voting. Through this outreach, we have reached thousands of voters, ensuring that they can access the promises of the national VRA.”

In the year 2013, the Supreme Court decided to strike down the preclearance provision of the VRA. The provision forced historically racist states to get federal approval for their voting procedures. Chief Justice Roberts gutted one of the most effective acts in American history on the basis that racism is not the problem it was 50 years ago. Following the decision, six of nine states announced plans to move forward with more restrictive voter ID laws.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

On this 50th anniversary of the VRA, we must renew the call to ensure that everyone can access the most basic, fundamental right of our democracy. If you’re interested in volunteering with Poverty Action to register voters this summer, please contact Davíd at david@povertyaction.org.

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The chains of black history

Image by David Castillo Dominici | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by David Castillo Dominici | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

From my perspective as an African American, the month of February can be enlightening, inspiring and painful at the same time. I’m not sure if I understand the words “black history?” When I say them, they evoke feelings of separateness from the totality of human truth. It’s carved out and deliberate but only special in terms of its place on the calendar.

For me to review black history is not only an acknowledgement that African Americans helped build this country with many great contributions, but that some of those courageous efforts were soaked in bloody oppression. I don’t want to dwell on this stuff, but it always floats to the top if one looks honestly.

When I look at black history, I see a struggle that is linked from the chained slaves aboard slave ships to the modern day African American who is supposed to be “free” – who may get up and look at themselves in the mirror and think they have it better than the generations before them. But deep down, they still see the commonality between themselves and their chained forebears, people that were fastened to their station in life with little to no hope of escape.

From that point of view, I see a history littered with civil rights icons and people that have struggled even to their very deaths to see justice. And so I ask, why have many of the people recognized in black history month had to be tempered in the hot oven of oppression? Why? I keep asking myself this, but whatever answer I come up with is wholly unsatisfying because it ends with more questions.

My thought is, don’t separate black history from human truth, because the fact is history isn’t clean, and can’t be. We learn by seeing the totality of the picture, not just a portion or what we feel is acceptable. Make no mistake, if we digress from honesty we fool ourselves into thinking past events are far removed from the present, and we doom ourselves to struggle and mediocrity.

Black history can’t exist without white history and how they have played against each other. If we don’t accept our shared history of privilege and oppression, we will never know ourselves as a community, nor will we end poverty. We can’t look at black history without examining the connections to the white world around us, its beauty, sacrifice and brutality.  February is black and white history month, right?

Tenant Tip: Public meetings on the use of criminal records in employment

In our 6/24/13 blog post, “Seattle Jobs Assistance Ordinance bans the box,” we wrote about the Jobs Assistance Ordinance that Seattle City Council passed to regulate how conviction and arrest records are used during the hiring process.

The ordinance removes the arrest/conviction history checkbox on employment applications and requires that employers conduct an initial screening before asking about a person’s criminal record. It also requires that an employer has a legitimate business reason for denying a person based on their conviction record. (There are exemptions to the ordinance; this FAQ provides more information.)

SeaOCRlogoSince the new requirements will take effect on November 1, 2013, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights will hold several public meetings to provide information, answer questions, and gather input from the community.

To request an accommodation, please contact Brenda Anibarro at 206.684.4514 or Brenda.Anibarro@Seattle.gov.

Help spread the word to your community by sharing this flyer or blog post. Hope to see you there!

The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767  Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30am and 4:30pm.

Seattle Jobs Assistance Ordinance bans the box

Ban-the-Box

An employer must have a legitimate business reason for denying employment.

In June 2013, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the Jobs Assistance Ordinance to ensure that individuals with a criminal background have a fair shot at finding employment. This ordinance increases public safety and serves the entire community by giving people who are reentering society after being incarcerated the opportunity to find jobs, obtain stable housing, and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

The Jobs Assistance Ordinance provides guidelines around when an employer in the City of Seattle can use criminal convictions to make hiring decisions. Previously it was legal for employers to directly ask on an application whether a person has a criminal background. Marking “yes” in that checkbox often meant that employers would not consider the applicant or take the time to find out if they were a qualified candidate.

What does the Jobs Assistance Ordinance do?

Essentially the ordinance will “ban the box,” meaning that job applications cannot ask whether you have an arrest or conviction record. Employers must wait to ask about previous criminal records until after there has been an initial screening or interview. Also, arrest records cannot be used to deny employment, as there is no conviction to indicate that the person was actually guilty of the crime.

In addition, employers can no longer advertise a job or use hiring practices that automatically exclude individuals who have a criminal record. For example, Seattle employers cannot advertise in a job posting “no criminal backgrounds” or “felons need not apply” in order to discourage people with a criminal record from applying.

How can criminal records be used in the hiring process?

The ordinance will go into effect on November 1, 2013. Employers may still decide not to offer a job based on a criminal record that will interfere with a person’s ability to perform the job or will create a risk to the employer or business. An employer must have a legitimate business reason for denying employment.

The ordinance requires employers to consider the following before making a decision in the hiring process:

  1. The seriousness of the criminal conviction or pending criminal charge
  2. The number and types of criminal convictions or pending criminal charges
  3. The time that has passed since the criminal conviction
  4. Information related to the individual’s rehabilitation or good conduct, provided by the individual
  5. The specific duties and responsibilities of the position and the person’s qualifications for the position
  6. The place and manner in which the position will be performed

What should I do if I suspect I’ve been denied employment unfairly because of a criminal record?

Contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights at 206.684.4500 to file a complaint or request an investigation. The Office for Civil Rights has the ability to investigate and work with employers to understand the new ordinance. They will provide education around hiring practices to encourage compliance, and in circumstances where several violations occur in one year, they can potentially require that employers pay a fine to the applicant that was turned down from the job.

How can I find out more about the Jobs Assistance Ordinance?

The City of Seattle has the entire Jobs Assistance Ordinance posted on their website along with a news release. Check out the segment on KUOW including an interview with Merf Ehman of Columbia Legal Services!

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