by Kevin Johnson

The 2012 presidential election is the most critical election of our lifetime. This election will determine the course of equality and justice in America for the next 25 years.


Some will argue that the economy, job losses, ending military wars, Obamacare, women’s health-care rights and same-sex marriage are the prevailing issues. This year’s election, however, is so vital because the next president will have the opportunity to appoint the next three to four Supreme Court justices. The Supreme Court will determine whether equality and justice moves forward or takes a tragic step backward.

Last week the United States Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in one of the two cases that will greatly impact equality and justice for America’s most disenfranchised communities. For instance, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court will decide if affirmative action will continue and whether the use of “race to level the playing field is still needed in America.

Nine years ago Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion for the Supremes in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld that race could be a factor that universities and colleges could use in order to increase student diversity on campus. While many held this as a victory for affirmative action, in 2006 the celebration quickly ended as conservatives, mostly Republicans, lobbied extensively and urged then President George W. Bush to replace O’Connor with Justice Samuel Alito. Both Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts are severely conservative and critics of race-conscious programs.

In 2007, in a case involving integration at the K–12 levels, Chief Justice Roberts argued: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Hence, when President Bush appointed them in a matter of one year, conservatives began the drumbeat to overturn any and all decisions that benefitted those who have experienced the dark side of America’s past with slavery, Jim and Jane Crowism, classism and sexism.

Also critical before the Supreme Court in October is the case of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since 2011, a total of 24 voting restrictions have been added to 17 states, resulting in a total of 30 states enacting voter ID laws. Although many states maintain that voter ID laws are needed to combat voter fraud, researchers have found little, if any, recent cases of such fraud in these states.

Despite the rhetoric, the voter ID laws are a form of suppressing our voice, progress, and community. Conservatives are implementing these laws to dispel the progression of civil rights and affirmative action. Their coalition is so strong that Kermit Roosevelt, a former clerk for Justice David Souter, recently stated that there is a strong possibility that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will “go down.” If Roosevelt is correct, then Supreme Court’s ruling in 2009—when it granted some local governments more leeway in changing their election procedures—is a foreshadow of what is to come.

In sum, the oral arguments on affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are only the beginning of what may be the erosion of justice for the African American and other communities. If the Supreme Court becomes more conservative, then Vice President Joe Biden was right: “They gon’ put y’all back in chains!”

Whatever your disappointments are with President Barack Obama’s debate performance or his failure to mention Gov. Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment, they must be put aside for the weightier matters that will impact our community.

For me, this election is not only about the economy, jobs, military, or health care. It is about making sure that America keeps its promise to ensure that all citizens are treated equally and fairly under the United States Constitution. Affirmative action may not last forever, but it ought to last long enough to give African Americans and those who have long been disenfranchised equal footing.

Let’s remember that it was the Supreme Court’s decision to shape history through racial integration, charging us as “separate but equal” in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court also shifted our education system in the desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education, and by enforcing equal opportunity for diverse students in society.

While the economy, military, and social issues are all valid, they should not overshadow the importance of the power of the Supreme Court. Make no mistake, we will be hugely impacted by the decisions that will be made by the present Supreme Court justices, as well as the decisions of future justices. The next president of the United States will either pave the way for a brighter future for our community, or will create more hurdles and reverse legal battles that we thought we had won.

Beloved, I cannot state it enough: This election is critical. If we do not vote for President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Nov. 6, our fight for justice and equality in America could all be reversed because we failed to exercise our right to vote. You have the power to keep America on a trajectory of moving forward!

As always, keep the faith.

(Reverend Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.)

(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune)

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