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Beyond Equal Rights: The Persistence of Ethno-Racial Inequalities in America

Par-delà l’égalité des droits : de la persistance des inégalités ethno-raciales aux États-Unis
Olivier Richomme

Résumés

Malgré un demi-siècle de réformes institutionnelles profondes, la société américaine est toujours marquée par des inégalités matérielles importantes entre groupes ethno-raciaux. Car si l’on ne peut nier que l’égalité des droits est devenue une réalité aux États-Unis, force est de constater que cette dernière ne s’est pas traduite par une égalité de fait. La persistance des inégalités ethno-raciales-voire leur accroissement pendant la Grande récession-révélée par la plupart des indicateurs socio-économiques, est un défi majeur pour la société américaine à l’heure où les politiques publiques de prise en compte de l’identité ethno-raciale perdent de leur popularité. Pire, les taux d’incarcération et les attaques face au droit de vote nous rappellent que même des droits aussi fondamentaux sont encore aux prises à des divisions ethno-raciales profondes qu’il est tentant d’instrumentaliser à des fins partisanes. Cet article entend donc analyser dans quelle mesure les inégalités ethno-raciales persistent aux États-Unis afin de démontrer que tout débat sur la question de l’égalité aux États-Unis doit encore prendre en considération la persistance de la fracture ethno-raciale.

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Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

droit, inégalité, race, États-Unis

Index by keywords :

rights, race, inequalities, United States

Index géographique :

United States, États-Unis

Index chronologique :

21st century, XXIe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1 I use the expression “ethno-racial” because even though the official position of the US Censu (...)

1The American Revolution failed to live up to its ground-breaking ideal that all men were created equal. The three-fifth compromise and the maintenance of chattel slavery were early signs of deep divisions that led to the Civil War. The second phase of the American Revolution, the Reconstruction period, was unsuccessful in its attempt at political reform in the South where the new rights acquired after the war were rendered ineffective by the black codes, Jim Crow legislation and the establishment of ethno-racial1 segregation. It was not until the third phase of the American Revolution, that is to say the Civil Rights Movement, that ethno-racial minorities and especially African-Americans were finally able to enjoy de jure and de facto equal rights. Nevertheless, in spite of the achievements of the Johnson administration in improving the political and living conditions of African-Americans thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and more generally speaking the war on poverty, with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, more direct intervention by the government proved to be necessary. Indeed, if obtaining equal rights was the goal of the Civil Rights Movement, attaining true equality remained elusive. Race-conscious public policies, while controversial, were indispensable to guarantee that equal rights in the law would translate into more equality between ethno-racial groups in practice.

  • 2 For an analysis of US history as a rivalry between two competing ethno-racial orders, see Des (...)

2Now, half a century after the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 it cannot be denied that African-Americans are no longer second-class citizens in their own country, and groups that used to be discriminated against have benefited from these reforms too. Hispanics and Asians who migrated to the US once national origin quotas were lifted in the 1950s and 1960s are now fully under the protection of civil rights legislation. However, equal rights do not entail true equality. The long history of institutional ethno-racial discrimination in the US has brought about a cycle of material inequality between ethno-racial groups that has been impossible to break so far. Conservatives argue that the election of a non-White president is proof that the US has moved beyond the ethno-racial divisions of the past. Yet, one could respond that the Obama presidency embodies the paradoxes and ambiguities of the US towards ethno-racial equality. One of the most striking ironies is that under the first non-White president, material ethno-racial inequalities have increased in the United States. In spite of forty years of institutional reforms and somewhat successful affirmative action policies, every socio-economic indicator, every demographic analysis, every political science study shows that wealth, poverty, unemployment, education, spatial segregation, rates of incarceration and voting patterns are still strongly correlated to race and ethnicity. That is because, beyond the veneer of equality of rights in the law, and this is what this article is trying to demonstrate, the fundamental structure of American society still rests on ethno-racial divisions2.

  • 3 Because of their small number and their geographical concentration in a handful of Stat (...)

3The 2008 economic crisis undoubtedly played a big role in accentuating ethno-racial disparities; however it did not create those trends. These material ethno-racial inequalities have plagued American society for decades. Ethno-racial minorities belonging to the underclass were the first hit by the economic crisis. As the US is preparing for years of slow growth and high unemployment, it is very unlikely that these discrepancies will be reversed any time soon. Affirmative action policies and other anti-discrimination measures did help create a Black and Hispanic middle-class, however they have proven incapable of helping the underclass3. The most destitute Blacks and Hispanics still have a much higher probability of suffering from a variety of social ills. And because of the centrality of the race concept in American history, equal rights will never have full meaning until some of these most blatant inequalities are addressed. Worse, ethno-racial patterns of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement efforts suggest that equal rights are still under attack, albeit in an indirect but still very troubling manner.

4In this article I will attempt to show that patterns of racial and ethnic disparities still run deep in spite of half a century of equal rights policies in order to suggest that any progressive agenda ought to include a larger debate on how to achieve meaningful equality and to do so acknowledge the central role race and ethnicity still play in American society.

The Extent of Ethno-racial Inequality

  • 4 Walt DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, Jessica C. Smith, US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, (...)
  • 5 Walt DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, Jessica C. Smith, US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, (...)
  • 6 US Bureau of Labor, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Annual Avera (...)
  • 7 Thomas M. Shapiro, The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuate (...)

5Contrary to the common assumption that ethno-racial inequalities are decreasing in the US, every indicator seems to suggest that they are constant or may even be worsening. For example, the decline in median income of American families observed between 2000 and 2010 was 5.5 % for White families while it reached 8.9 % for Asians, 10.1 % for Hispanics and 14.6 % for Blacks4. Of course, ethno-racial minorities started the decade with a much lower average median income than that of the White majority, for in spite of decades of race-conscious public policies, ethno-racial disparities in income have been rather steady since the 1970s. According to the latest census figures, in 2012, the real median household income was $33,321 for Blacks, $39,005 for Hispanics, $57,009 for Whites and $68,636 for Asians5. In other words, the median incomes of African-American and Latino households represent 58 % and 68 % of White households’ median income. According to my calculation, using the 2011 census figures, the percentage of families earning less than $50,000 a year was 25.4 % for Whites, 39 % for Asians, 62 % for Hispanics and 65.2 % for Blacks, with a whopping 25.4 % of Black families making less than $15,000 a year. Comparatively, 25.2 % of White families earned more than $100,000 a year while only 10.3 % of Black families were in the same income bracket. Of course, disparities in unemployment rates help explain in part these discrepancies in family income. In November 2011, the level of unemployment for Blacks (15.8 %) was almost the double of that of Whites (7.9 %)6. Besides, empirical evidence suggests that Black family members need to work longer hours and more weeks per year to earn their incomes. In 2000, middle-income African-American families would have had to work three additional months per year to collect the same amount of money as White families, according to Thomas M. Shapiro7.

  • 8 DeNavas et al., op. cit., 2012, 14-15. In 2012, the US Census Bureau fixed the poverty line (...)
  • 9 Ibid, 18.
  • 10 Marc Hugo Lopez & Gabriel Velasco, “Childhood Poverty among Hispanics Sets Record H (...)
  • 11 Greg J. Duncan, Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest & Ariel Kalil, “Early-Childhood Poverty and (...)

6In 2012, poverty reached an all-time high in the US with 46.5 million Americans considered to be living in poverty, that is to say 15 % of the population. Poverty affected 9.7 % of Whites, 11.7 % of Asians, 25.6 % of Hispanics and 27.2 % of Blacks8. These discrepancies even increase for the extremely poor. The percentage of Americans living under 50 % of the poverty threshold was 4.3 % for Whites, 5.7 % for Asians, 10.1 for Hispanics and 12.7 % for Blacks9. Minors seem to be impacted disproportionately: 37.4 % of Black children lived under the poverty line in 2011 while this figure was 34.1 % for Hispanics, 13.3 % for Asians and 9.1 % for Whites. In 2010, the number of Hispanic children living in poverty reached 6.1 million, which represents an increase of 36.3 % since 2007 (+1.6 million)10. Since 2000, the growth rates of poverty for minority children have far outpaced those for Whites, and these differences are projected to go on. This does not bode well for the future of these populations since poverty in early childhood often carries over into adulthood and negatively affects health and earnings later in life11.

  • 12 Melvin L. Oliver & Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective (...)
  • 13 Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry & Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites (...)
  • 14 Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro, “The Roots of the Widening Racial W (...)

7As Thomas M. Shapiro and Melvin L. Oliver have explained, ethno-racial disparities are reinforced when one looks no longer at income but at wealth, which seems logical since wealth is accumulated over generations12. For instance, in 2009, a White household’s median net worth was 20 times superior to that of Blacks and 18 times superior to that of Hispanics which is the greatest disparity measured since these statistics have existed13. One obvious reason for this difference is inheritance, even if most Americans inherit little money, the racial gap remains significant. According to a recent study following American families over a 25-year period “each inherited dollar contributed to 91 cents of wealth for White families compared with 20 cents for African-American families. Inheritance is more likely to add wealth to the considerably larger portfolio Whites start out with since Blacks […] typically need to reserve their wealth for emergency savings.”14

  • 15 US Census Bureau, “Residential vacancies and home ownership in the first quarter 20 (...)
  • 16 Jacob S. Rugh & Douglas S. Massey, “Ethno-Racial Segregation and the American Forec (...)
  • 17 Linda A. Jacobsen & Mark Mather, “A Post-Recession Update on US Social and Economic Trends, (...)

8Another source of wealth inequality is the access to home ownership, which has traditionally been an important source of wealth accumulation in the US. But, since the burst of the housing bubble and the beginning of the Great Recession, levels of home ownership have been declining, from 68.6 % in 2004 to 64.8 % in 2014, its lowest level since the mid-1990s15. This drop has occurred in all ethno-racial and ethnic groups, however Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by foreclosures. Indeed, they have experienced larger decreases in home ownership than Whites. During the previous 20 years, ethno-racial gaps in this field narrowed, due in part to the increasing number of (subprime) mortgage loans made to low-income minority households. However, the differential impact of the recession on Blacks and Latinos caused these gaps to widen again between 2008 and 2010. Massey and Rugh have shown that subprime lending practices and the ensuing wave of foreclosures were highly ethno-racialized phenomena16. In 2010, about 73 % of Whites were homeowners, compared with 47 % of Hispanics and only 44 % of Blacks. And although median home values decreased for all ethno-racial groups, they fell most among Hispanics, with an overall decline of 21 % between 2008 and 2010 with wide regional differences.17

  • 18 Olivier Richomme, « Obamacare: réforme à minima ou nouveau progressisme », Cycnos, n°29, 20 (...)
  • 19 De Navas et al., op. cit., 2013, 23.
  • 20 US Department for Health and Human Services, Health, United States, 2007, National (...)
  • 21 Nancy Krieger, “Discrimination and Health,” in Lisa F. Berkamn & Ichiro Kawachi (eds.), Social Epid (...)

9Poverty also has a direct impact on health in a country where health insurance is based, by and large, on private market, for-profit, insurance providers. A single-payer system might reduce health disparities but this option was never truly explored during the debate over health care reform in 2009-1018. The Obama administration decided to present its health-care reform as a cost-effective mechanism that would lower the financial impact of health coverage for all Americans. Thus, universal coverage would not appear as a measure helping mostly minorities or the poor because Obama could not run the risk of appearing to be the Black candidate helping minorities. But it is obvious that this reform would facilitate the reduction of ethno-racial disparities in health coverage. And the Democrats were more than happy to use this argument locally on the campaign trail because it resonated with two important factions of the Democratic coalition: Blacks and Hispanics. Indeed, in 2012, among the 48 million Americans without health insurance, the ethno-racial disparity was as follows: 11.1 % of Whites, 15.1 % of Asians, 19 % of Blacks and 29.1 % of Hispanics19. The very high rate for Hispanics seems to be correlated to being foreign born and not citizens, two aggravating factors. In addition, Black infant mortality is more than twice that of Whites (13.7 for 1,000 births compared to 5.7) in a country known for its high infant mortality rate. And life expectancy is notoriously lower for African-American males and females compared to their White counterparts20. The list of medical conditions affecting minorities and especially Blacks at higher rates than Whites is too long to be quoted exhaustively here. We can nevertheless mention cardiovascular accidents, heart conditions and chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, but also infections such as tuberculosis or AIDS. Contrary to what the pharmacogenetic drug manufacturers suggest, these worrisome statistics are not related to ethno-racial genetic predispositions but to socio-economic factors such as unemployment and living conditions.21 Therefore, health-care reform can and will be helpful in reducing these disparities but it will not be enough.

  • 22 Camille L. Ryan & Julie Siebens, “Educational Attainment in the US 2009,” US Bureau of the (...)
  • 23 Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show,” The (...)
  • 24 William M. Rodgers III, “The Great Recession’s Impact on African American Public Sector Emp (...)

10One of the most important reasons why African-Americans and Hispanics are often excluded from the job market is that their level of education is generally much lower than that of Whites or Asians. In 2009, 10 % of the White population over 25 years old had not graduated from high school or college while this was the case for 19 % of Blacks and 39 % of Hispanics22. The rate of college graduation (bachelor degree or higher) was 31 % for Whites, 17 % for Blacks and a dismal 12.6 % for Hispanics. Ethno-racial minorities, with the exception of Asians, are less likely both to enroll at university and to graduate. In 2005, the graduation rate of Black students was 42 % compared to 62 % for Whites. Worse, this rate was only 35 % for Black males23. These figures are of course very consequential for these groups especially in times of economic recession because diplomas still increase the chances of finding a job. Unemployment rates usually decline among all ethno-racial groups as education levels increase. Yet, as we have mentioned, Blacks are disproportionately affected at all education levels, even among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Diplomas are therefore not race-neutral shields against unemployment, just as public employee status has ceased to protect Blacks from layoffs. According to a recent study, “even after controlling for personal characteristics and local economic conditions, the difference in the probability of displacement between African-American and White public sector respondents increased from zero to a recession gap of 2.8 percentage points, now equaling the private sector gap.”24

  • 25 Daniel T. Lichter, Domenico Parisi & Michael C. Taquino, “The Geography of Exclusion: Race, (...)

11These different figures in economic disparities lead to another phenomenon, a new form of spatial segregation. While spatial segregation has decreased overall since the 1960s, statistics suggest that it is on the rise again in all corners of the country. Urban patterns used to be characterized by downtown areas concentrating high rates of economic and ethno-racial segregation while White affluent populations took refuge in ever more distant suburbs. But in the years 2000s the phenomenon of ethnoburbs started to emerge suggesting that non-White communities were forming outside downtown areas. Moreover, rural ghettos have emerged as entire regions of the country are now defined by high rates of ethno-racial segregation and ultra-poverty such as the Mississippi Delta region (Black), the south of the Rio Grande (Latino) or the Native American reservations of the Great Plains. This is because ethno-racial and class segregation are distinct phenomena which also overlap25. In the US the underclass also tends to be overwhelmingly Black or Latino. The recent uptick in poverty accentuates, almost mechanically, ethno-racial inequalities and segregation.

  • 26 Gary Orfield & Lee Chungmei, Ethno-Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of (...)

12However, the most worrying trend for America’s future may be that of school segregation. Studies have shown that the percentage of Black students attending majority non-White schools increased between 1991 and 2004 in all regions of the country, from 66 % to 73 %26. If one combines these figures with the fact that schools are financed locally without any public policy of redistribution, that the phenomenon of White-flight is not waning, that imperfect policies such as busing are very unpopular and that the Supreme Court conservative majority does not seem inclined to find constitutional violations in patterns of school segregation, it is hard to see how this trend could be reversed.

  • 27 E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, “Prisoners in 2012 – Advance Counts,” Bureau of Justic (...)
  • 28 Ibid.
  • 29 Tracy L. Snell, “Capital Punishment 2012 – Statistical Tables,” Bureau of Justice Statistic (...)
  • 30 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2009 National (...)
  • 31 Donald Barman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, A (...)
  • 32 Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New Y (...)
  • 33 Christopher J. Lyons & Becky Pettit, “Race, Incarceration, and Wage Growth,” Social Problem (...)
  • 34 US Department of Justice, “Attorney General Holder Urges Changes in Federal Senten (...)

13These patterns of school segregation are nevertheless dwarfed by the ethno-racial implications of modern mass incarceration. The numbers of young Black and Latino males being incarcerated, since the beginning of the 1980s, is especially disturbing for its long-term consequences for communities but also for its social cost to the entire American society. Incarceration in the United States has increased sixfold over the last three decades (from 350,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million in 2009) and drug convictions make up the majority of the increase. The incarceration rate of the US is now almost eight times that of France (743 per 100,000 against 96). These figures constitute a real concern for the African-American community, which represented, in 2011, 38 % of the state prison population while Whites accounted for 35 % and Hispanics for 21 %27. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of Hispanic inmates sentenced for violent offenses (58 %) exceeded that of African-Americans (56 %) and Whites (49 %), while the number of African-American inmates imprisoned for violent crimes (284,631) exceeded that of Whites (228,782) or Hispanics (162,489)28. In 2012, out of 3,033 prisoners under sentence of death in the US, 1,271 (42 %) were Black.29 Nor can these tremendous ethno-racial inequalities be explained by the incidence of drug crime since studies show that people of every ethno-racial group use and sell illegal drugs at the same rate30. It is therefore difficult to deny that this system of social control seems to have become extremely ethno-racialized. Nowadays, one in three young African-American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system, either in prison, in jail, in probation or on parole. In many cities these rates are even higher31. The expansion of the American incarceration policy has created a system of social control that legally denies an ever growing part of the US population the ability to obtain employment, housing and public benefits. Once released, ex-felons are also often denied the right to vote and are excluded from juries and are “through a web of laws, regulations and informal rules […] relegated to a ethno-racially segregated and subordinate existence.”32 The impact on the Black community is devastating and does not bode well for its future. Studies had already shown that criminal offenders and prison inmates faced poor labor market prospects upon release thus maintaining the cycle of ethno-racial inequality through higher rates of prison exposure. But recent studies suggest that the impact of incarceration affects ethno-racial trends in wages over the course of a lifetime33. In a sense, every prison sentence is a life sentence. Aware of these patterns, Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American appointed to this position, launched two initiatives in 2013 and 2014. His “Smart on Crime” initiative introduced a major change to the Department’s charging policy, by planning to limit strict mandatory minimum sentences to high-level or violent drug traffickers. He also campaigned for a reform of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, reserving the harshest penalties for the most serious drug offenders.34

14What is currently perceived as a criminal justice issue should be perceived as the new civil rights crisis. Indeed, it is very hard for civil rights leaders to look at these figures and not wonder if the US has actually made equal rights a reality when the criminal system, with its long history of institutional discrimination, still demonstrates such a blatant bias. But it could be argued that the war on drugs, ethno-racial profiling and the prohibitive cost of defense do not constitute intentional attempts at creating a social control system designed to deprive minorities of some of their most fundamental rights. However, legal practices meant to limit the number of ballots cast by minorities for explicit partisan gain remind us that voting rights are far from being as secure as one might think, even with a Black man in the White House.

Disenfranchisement and (Un)equal Voting Rights

  • 35 Democrats have received more than 80 % of the Black vote in every presidential elec (...)
  • 36 Weinger McKenzie, “0 percent of Blacks for Mitt Romney,” Politico.com, August 22, 2012, <ht (...)
  • 37 Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 % remark was not intended to be aired but it was part of his mess (...)
  • 38 Darren Samulsohn, “Clinton Likens GOP Efforts to Jim Crow,” Politico.com, July 6, 2011, <ht (...)
  • 39 For more details on these procedures, see Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine C. Minnite & Margaret (...)
  • 40 On the question of vote suppression in the South and the role of the Democrat Party, See (...)

15Today’s Republican Party believes it has a strategic interest in alienating and stereotyping minorities. During the 2012 Republican Party primaries Mitt Romney went so far as embracing the “self-deportation” approach championed by the most extreme fringe of the GOP. In a deeply polarized country where elections are always very close, the American two-party system gives as much incentive to try and demobilize voters as to try and mobilize them. But the demobilization strategy is a short-term plan compensating for a lack of vision and direction in the GOP. The problem with the Southern approach, that has indeed paid great dividends in terms of electoral success thanks to the partisan realignment of the South, is that it has completely alienated the African-American vote35. And today, with their hostile positions towards immigrants, Republican leaders are running the risk of losing the youngest and fastest growing community in the country: Latinos. The fact that some polls in 2012 credited Mitt Romney with a Black population vote close to 0 %,36 combined with the fact that Latinos intended to vote for Obama at a rate of 2 to 1, led conservative operatives to opt for the short-term political calculation of using anti-immigration or anti-welfare state rhetoric.37 Instead of embracing this new and unstoppable demographic trend, conservatives decided to solidify their White base through, sometimes not so subtle, race codes and Democrat turnout reduction via vote suppression38. Because they vote Democrat in such high numbers, marginalized groups (essentially poor minorities) have become the targets of legal manipulation of electoral rules: misinformation campaigns, exceedingly long lines at the polls, inaccurate registration records, purging of voter rolls, the abuse of felon disenfranchisement laws, new voter ID rules preventing eligible voters from casting their ballots, party-run voter challenge campaigns, and the use of provisional ballots that are then not counted39. There is a long history of vote suppression in the US, on the part of both parties, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 were supposed to fix40. However, the structure of the electoral system is such that in tight races party operatives and campaign managers have no incentives for coalition-building. The short-term solution of mobilizing the base through wedge-issues and identity politics while limiting the opposition’s turnout is quick, cost-effective and seems to pay off. As long as the electoral system does not provide incentives for increasing turnout and long-term coalition-building, the temptation to limit the franchise, albeit indirectly, will be great.

  • 41 Bob Fitrakis, Steve Rosenfeld & Harvey Wasserman, What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Reco (...)
  • 42 For a State-by-State estimate, see Christopher Uggen, Sarah Shannon & Jeff Manza, “State-Le (...)

16The vote suppression in Ohio in 2004 was well documented and the notorious 2000 election in Florida became the poster-child of modern Black disenfranchisement41. In 2000, the Florida Elections Division’s move to strip felons from the rolls may have wrongly removed hundreds, if not thousands, of potential voters before the presidential election that Florida voters decided by just 537 votes when the Supreme Court interrupted the recount. According to The Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.85 million Americans nationally are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions, a figure that escalated dramatically over the previous decades (1.71 million in 1976) as a direct consequence of mass incarceration policies. Therefore, felony disenfranchisement laws are exacerbated by ethno-racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 African-American in 13 being unable to vote in the US, half of them after they have paid their debt to society. In Florida, in 2010, 23 % of the adult African-American population had lost its voting right due to a current or previous felony conviction.42

17However, these attacks on one of the most fundamental rights seem to have reached another level in 2012 with voter ID laws being passed in several States. These laws officially designed to fight voter fraud, in spite of numerous studies demonstrating that no such phenomenon exists in the US, have the indirect consequence of lowering turnout in poor communities, the assumption on the part of the Republicans being that poor populations heavily composed of ethno-racial minorities vote Democrat. Therefore any legal mechanism discouraging them from going to the polls was promoted in States controlled by the GOP. Voter ID has been a controversial topic in State legislatures over the past decade. Since 2001, nearly 1,000 bills have been introduced in a total of 46 States. Since 24 States passed major legislation during the period 2003-2012, the non voter-ID legislation of the past is no longer the norm in the US. The 33 voter ID laws that have been enacted vary in their details but all may potentially have had a major impact in tight local races. But the ones that were passed in August 2012 in highly disputed States (such as Virginia and Pennsylvania) may have been the most consequential since they were adopted so close to the presidential elections and left little time for the population to adapt to the new procedures.

  • 43 “Everything That’s Happened Since Supreme Court Ruled on Voting Rights Act,” <http://www.propublica.org/article/voting-rights-by-state-map>, </http> (...)
  • 44 National Conference of State Legislatures, Voter ID Requirements, <http://www.ncsl.org/legi (...)

18Some of these disenfranchisement efforts were stalled by various State judicial decisions until 2013 but they instantly accelerated after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling in 2013 that rendered Section 5 inoperative. Since the Court’s decision, 14 States controlled by the Republican Party have adopted new voter ID laws, including the State of Texas which had seen its law previously rejected by the Justice Department when it had to seek pre-clearance under an active Section 543. These efforts have prompted lawsuits by the federal government against State governments, under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that is used to challenge voting qualifications, practices and procedures that deny or abridge voting rights on account of race or color. The Justice Department is currently suing North Carolina to challenge some of the State’s new voting law provisions, including one which requires photo identification and it is also challenging Texas’s photo ID requirements and its redistricting plans44.

19To understand the burden caused by these measures and the potential impact on voter mobilization, two key distinctions in voter ID legislation need to be made: whether a law is strict or not, and whether or not the ID must include a photo.

  • Strict vs. Non-Strict: In the strict States, a voter cannot cast a valid ballot without first presenting ID. Voters who are unable to show ID at the polls are given a provisional ballot. These provisional ballots are kept separate from the regular ballots. If the voter returns to election officials within a short period of time after the election (generally a few days) and presents acceptable ID, the provisional ballot is counted. If the voter does not come back to show ID, that provisional ballot is never counted.

  • Photo vs. Non-Photo: 16 States require that the ID presented at the polls must show a photo of the voter. Some of these are strict voter ID laws, in that voters who fail to show photo ID are given a provisional ballot and must eventually show photo ID in order to get that provisional ballot counted. Others are non-strict, and voters without ID have other options for casting a regular ballot. They may be permitted to sign an affidavit of identity, or poll workers may be able to vouch for them if they know them personally. In these non-strict States, voters who fail to bring ID on Election Day are not required to return to election officials and show ID in order to have their ballot counted. In the other 16 voter ID States, there is a wide array of IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes, some of which do not include a photo of the voter. Some of these States are strict in the sense that a voter who fails to bring ID on Election Day will be required to cast a provisional ballot, and that provisional ballot will be counted only if the voter returns to election officials within a few days to show acceptable ID.45

20Thus, forcing people to acquire an ID they otherwise have no need for, that costs time and money, and forces citizens to go twice to the poll to make sure their vote is counted is akin, at least in its direct consequences, to the disenfranchisement mechanisms of the Jim Crow era. However, other procedures go even further.

  • 46 Republican officials admitted as much openly. See for instance Luke Johnson, “Mike Turzai, (...)
  • 47 An analysis of the lists by the Miami Herald found that 58 % of those identified as potenti (...)
  • 48 Actually since a third of the American electorate now votes early, this fight starts at lea (...)

21In the key swing State of Florida, Voter ID laws exist but Republican officials decided, in 2012, they were not enough to guarantee a low minority turnout and a Republican victory46. Therefore, Republican governor Rick Scott launched a heated campaign to remove non-citizens from voter rolls, even though no empirical studies indicated that the State was plagued with such fraud. When the purging effort, using inaccurate DMV lists, started to look like a deliberate attempt at reducing the number of minority voters and therefore disenfranchising thousands of US citizens in the crucial swing State, it attracted national attention47. The Department of Justice ordered the State of Florida to stop the purge in May 2012 arguing that the effort appeared to violate both the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, under which Florida cannot make changes that affect voting in five of the State’s counties without DOJ approval. Florida refused to cooperate and in turn sued the Department of Homeland Security arguing that the State had been illegally denied access to the most accurate federal listing, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database. While this legal battle was taking place, the purge continued, leading to many mistakes, without any guarantees that the voters erased from the lists would be reinstated in time for the election. And much less guarantees that if a citizen was denied the right to vote on Election Day, this person would actually fight this illegal procedure and follow through. The Democrats now dispatch an army of lawyers and volunteers at the polling places on Election Day to help potentially disenfranchised citizens to demand that their vote be counted48. Obama’s victory in Florida put the controversy to rest for now but this issue is likely to resurface in this State or another in the next presidential election as long as the GOP sees these procedures as giving it a short-term partisan advantage even if the party runs the risk of alienating a large part of the electorate in the long run.

Conclusion

22These latest examples of minority disenfranchisement attempts remind us that voting rights are not to be taken for granted even nowadays. The correlation between ethno-racial identities and different social and cultural factors such as party affiliation makes identity politics as volatile as ever. That is because in the US race and ethnicity remain the greatest force shaping the political order.

23And, as studies mentioned in this article demonstrate, every meaningful social indicator reveals that many patterns of ethno-racial inequality and, at least indirect, discrimination persist. Equal rights helped put an end to most institutional discrimination, which was their main goal; however they are not sufficient to reduce material ethno-racial inequalities. Only pro-active public policies designed specifically to reform the fundamental structure of American society have helped reduce ethno-racial patterns that were created over centuries of institutional ethno-racial discrimination. Yet, since race-specific targeted measures seem to be politically divisive today, the only viable alternative is for political leaders to put in place consistent universal policies that benefit the entire society and help negate these ethno-racial patterns indirectly and over a long period of time. Equality of rights alone cannot reduce the most blatant ethno-racial disparities of American society without universal health care reform, a more ambitious public education policy, a true Welfare State and comprehensive criminal law reform. But for these reforms to be accepted by voters, political leaders must present them as long-term investments for the future of the entire nation in order to dismiss the conservative argument presenting them negatively as more government spending in times of recession. Moreover, these reforms need to be part of a larger debate on the meaning of inequality in the US, a debate that would go beyond the equal rights rhetoric to include the crucial role that race and ethnicity play in maintaining ethno-racial material inequalities. In 2014, American society seems confronted with the paradox of a meritocracy based on the enforcement of equal rights while deep patterns of ethno-racial inequalities remain. Progressive political leaders who want to move the US beyond the status quo must find a way to reconcile the equal rights imperative and the reduction of ethno-racial inequalities as part of a broader discussion on equality in America.

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Notes

1 I use the expression “ethno-racial” because even though the official position of the US Census is that race and ethnicity are two different statistical categories (as defined by the 1978 Statistical Policy Directive 15 of the Office of Management and Budget), from a political standpoint these two categories are always mutually exclusive. Actually, in practice, even the Census Bureau has no use for statistically inclusive categories. Once published these statistics are rarely used. Mutually exclusive categories have become the norm even for federal agencies. This oddity of the Census bureau’s classification of having only one ethnic category (Hispanic/non-Hispanic) can be explained by the political conditions under which this category was created. See Olivier Richomme, « Hispanique/Latino/Origine espagnole » : genèse d’une catégorie politique, Politique américaine, n° 21, 2013, 15-30. For a larger discussion on ethno-racial classification in the US and its political implications, see Olivier Richomme, De la diversité en Amérique : politiques de représentation des minorités ethno-raciales aux États-Unis, Paris : Presses Universitaires de la Sorbonne, 2013.

2 For an analysis of US history as a rivalry between two competing ethno-racial orders, see Desmond King & Roger Smith, Still a House Divided, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011.

3 Because of their small number and their geographical concentration in a handful of States (and inside those States in large metropolitan areas), Asians are usually studied separately. Asians’ tests results are such that they have not benefited from affirmative action policies. However, it could be argued that the US ethno-racial classification, by lumping together very diverse populations, makes the Asian underclass less salient. In the same way, the White underclass tends to disappear inside the White category that is much more heterogeneous than ethno-racial statistics suggest. The Native-American category is an exception in the sense that it is not only an ethno-racial category based on self-identification but it is also a political category that gives federally-recognized tribe members a particular political status that has no other equivalent.

4 Walt DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, Jessica C. Smith, US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010,” US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, September 2011, <http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf >, accessed December 12, 2012.

5 Walt DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, Jessica C. Smith, US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012,” US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, September 2013, <http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf>, accessed June 26, 2014.

6 US Bureau of Labor, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Annual Averages, 5. Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Sex, Age, and Race, < http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat05.htm>, accessed December 12, 2012.

7 Thomas M. Shapiro, The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 7.

8 DeNavas et al., op. cit., 2012, 14-15. In 2012, the US Census Bureau fixed the poverty line at 15,000 dollars a year for two people and 23,500 dollars for a couple with two children, <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html>, accessed June 20, 2012.

9 Ibid, 18.

10 Marc Hugo Lopez & Gabriel Velasco, “Childhood Poverty among Hispanics Sets Record High, Leads the Nation,” Pew Research Center, September 28, 2011, <http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/2011/10/147.pdf>, accessed December 12, 2012.

11 Greg J. Duncan, Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest & Ariel Kalil, “Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment Behavior and Health,” Child Development, vol. 81, n°1, 2010, 306-325.

12 Melvin L. Oliver & Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Ethno-Racial Inequality, 2d ed., New York: Routledge, 2006.

13 Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry & Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics,” July 26, 2011, Pew Research Center, <http://www.pewsocialtrend1s.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics>, accessed December 12, 2012.

14 Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro, “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” <http://iasp.brandeis.edu/pdfs/Author/shapiro-thomas-m/racialwealthgapbrief.pdf>, accessed June 25, 2014.

15 US Census Bureau, “Residential vacancies and home ownership in the first quarter 2014,” <http://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf>, accessed June 30, 2014.

16 Jacob S. Rugh & Douglas S. Massey, “Ethno-Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis,” American Sociological Review, October 2010, vol. 75, n°5, 629-651.

17 Linda A. Jacobsen & Mark Mather, “A Post-Recession Update on US Social and Economic Trends,” Population Bulletin Update, December 2011, 3-4, <http://www.prb.org/Publications/PopulationBulletins/2011/us-economicsocialtrends-update1.aspx>, accessed December 12, 2012.

18 Olivier Richomme, « Obamacare: réforme à minima ou nouveau progressisme », Cycnos, n°29, 2013, 49-70.

19 De Navas et al., op. cit., 2013, 23.

20 US Department for Health and Human Services, Health, United States, 2007, National Center for Health Statistics, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus07.pdf>, accessed December 12, 2012.

21 Nancy Krieger, “Discrimination and Health,” in Lisa F. Berkamn & Ichiro Kawachi (eds.), Social Epidemiology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 36-75.

22 Camille L. Ryan & Julie Siebens, “Educational Attainment in the US 2009,” US Bureau of the Census, February 2012, <http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p20-566.pdf>, accessed December 12, 2012.

23 Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, <http://www.jbhe.com/features/50_blackstudent_gradrates.html>, accessed June 28, 2014.

24 William M. Rodgers III, “The Great Recession’s Impact on African American Public Sector Employment,” National Poverty Center Working Paper Series, January 2012, <http://www.npc.umich.edu/publications/working_papers/?publication_id=229/>, accessed December 12, 2012.

25 Daniel T. Lichter, Domenico Parisi & Michael C. Taquino, “The Geography of Exclusion: Race, Segregation, and Concentrated Poverty,” Social Problems, vol. 59, n° 3, August 2012, 364-388.

26 Gary Orfield & Lee Chungmei, Ethno-Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation, Cambridge (MA): The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006, 9.

27 E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, “Prisoners in 2012 – Advance Counts,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2010, < http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p12ac.pdf>, accessed June 12, 2014.

28 Ibid.

29 Tracy L. Snell, “Capital Punishment 2012 – Statistical Tables,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cp12st.pdf>, accessed June 26, 2014.

30 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-38A, HHS Publication No. SMA 10-4586Findings), Rockville (MD), 2010, <http://oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k9nsduh/2k9resultsp.pdf>, accessed December 12, 2012.

31 Donald Barman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004, 3.

32 Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York and London: The New Press, 2010, 4.

33 Christopher J. Lyons & Becky Pettit, “Race, Incarceration, and Wage Growth,” Social Problems, vol. 58, n°2, May 2011, 257-280.

34 US Department of Justice, “Attorney General Holder Urges Changes in Federal Sentencing Guidelines to Reserve Harshest Penalties for Most Serious Drug Traffickers,” <http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2014/March/14-ag-263.html>, accessed June 27, 2014.

35 Democrats have received more than 80 % of the Black vote in every presidential election since 1976 (and probably since 1964 even though the methodology before 1976 only counted Whites and non-Whites), <http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/presidential/presidential_election.html>, accessed June 30, 2014.

36 Weinger McKenzie, “0 percent of Blacks for Mitt Romney,” Politico.com, August 22, 2012, <http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0812/80015.html>, accessed December 12, 2012. On election night, Obama received 93 % of the Black vote and 71 % of the Hispanic vote, “Election 2012, President Exit Polls,” New York Times, <http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president/exit-polls/>, accessed December 12, 2012. In 2004 G.-W. Bush received 44 % of the Hispanic vote, in 2008 McCain received 31 % and in 2012 Romney received 27 % while the share of Hispanics in the voting population increased from 6 % in 2004 to reach 10 % in 2012. Roberto Suro, Richard Fry & Jeffrey Passel, “Hispanics and the 2004 Election: Population, Electorate and Voters,” Pew Research Center, <http://www.pewhispanic.org/2005/06/27/hispanics-and-the-2004-election/>, accessed December 12, 2012 ; Mark Hugo Lopez & Paul Taylor, “Latino Voters in the 2012 Election,” Pew Research Center, <http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/11/07/latino-voters-in-the-2012-election/>, accessed December 12, 2012.

37 Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 % remark was not intended to be aired but it was part of his message to his electoral base and his donors.

38 Darren Samulsohn, “Clinton Likens GOP Efforts to Jim Crow,” Politico.com, July 6, 2011, <http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/58419.html/>, accessed December 12, 2012.

39 For more details on these procedures, see Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine C. Minnite & Margaret Groake, Keeping down the Black Vote: Race and Demobilization of American Voters, New York and London: The New Press, 2009.

40 On the question of vote suppression in the South and the role of the Democrat Party, See J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics. Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910, Cambridge (MA) and London: Yale University Press, 1974.

41 Bob Fitrakis, Steve Rosenfeld & Harvey Wasserman, What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, New York: The Free Press, 2006.

42 For a State-by-State estimate, see Christopher Uggen, Sarah Shannon & Jeff Manza, “State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010,” June 2012, The Sentencing Project, <http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_State_Level_Estimates_of_Felon_Disen_2010.pdf>, accessed December 12, 2012.

43 “Everything That’s Happened Since Supreme Court Ruled on Voting Rights Act,” <http://www.propublica.org/article/voting-rights-by-state-map>, accessed June 20, 2014.

44 National Conference of State Legislatures, Voter ID Requirements, <http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx>, accessed June 21, 2014.

45 National Conference of State Legislatures, Voter ID Requirements, <http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx>, accessed June 21, 2014.

46 Republican officials admitted as much openly. See for instance Luke Johnson, “Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania GOP House Majority Leader: Voter ID Will Allow Mitt Romney To Win State,” Huffington Post, June 25, 2012, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/mike-turzai-voter-id_n_1625646.html>, accessed December 12, 2012.

47 An analysis of the lists by the Miami Herald found that 58 % of those identified as potential noncitizens were Hispanics, “Hispanics, NPAs more likely to face Noncitizen Voter Purge than Whites, GOP,” Miami Herald, September 29, 2012, <http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/12/2796905/noncitizen-voter-hunt-targets. html>, accessed December 12, 2012.

48 Actually since a third of the American electorate now votes early, this fight starts at least 40 days before Election Day.

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Olivier Richomme, « Beyond Equal Rights: The Persistence of Ethno-Racial Inequalities in America », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n°7 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2014, consulté le 24 juin 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/6912 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.6912

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Auteur

Olivier Richomme

Université Lumière-Lyon 2, France. Olivier Richomme is assistant professor at the University of Lyon 2. His field of research is race and politics in the US. His latest publications include Le bilan d’Obama, O. Richomme et V. Michelot (dir.), Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2012 and De la diversité en Amérique : politiques de représentation des minorités ethno-raciales aux États-Unis, Paris : Presses Universitaires de la Sorbonne, 2013.

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