Racism Today: The Voting Rights Act and Paula Deen

In the midst of several landmark cases, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Prior to the decision, Section 4 of the Act established “preclearance” methods to determine which states needed federal approval to change voting laws. Intended to protect minority voting rights, Section 4 largely affected southern states with a history of discriminatory practices.

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote for the majority, acknowledged that voting discrimination still exists, a hard-to-dispute reality given the numerous claims of voter suppression during the 2012 elections. However, the more conservative side of the bench found that the current formula under Section 4 is an outdated measure, applicable in 1965 but not today.

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In other news, Paula Deen, one of America’s most recognizable celebrity chefs, has been battling accusations of discrimination and use of racial slurs in her restaurants. It’s unclear whether this latest scandal will crumble Paula Deen’s deep-fried empire, but her statements are reminiscent of the South’s complicated racial history.

There is no doubt that the fight against racism and discrimination has come a long way since the 1960s. As a result of her comments, Paula Deen has been harshly judged in the court of public opinion, and sponsors are fleeing. But the Paula Deen debacle also highlights the continuing existence of racist attitudes today.

The Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act oversimplifies a complex problem. No, we are not where we were in 1965, but it would be naïve to think anti-discriminatory safeguards have outrun their course.

The ruling does allow for the possibility that Congress will instate a new formula for the Voting Rights Act, an updated preclearance equation. But with the current state of a deadlocked Congress, people are far from optimistic that such a measure will pass. In the meantime minority voting blocks are left especially vulnerable.

Historically, the path towards racial equality has been an uphill climb, and we have been steadily pushing upwards. It will be significantly more difficult to continue on without the buffers that prevent us from sliding back.

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

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A New Generation and the End of DOMA

It’s all about the Supreme Court lately! Recent decisions handed down dealt with hot topics like affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and marriage equality. It was the Supreme Court equivalent of a much anticipated season finale.

Especially amongst young adults, no other case in recent memory paralleled the kind of attention received by United States v. Windsor. On June 26, Justice Kennedy joined the four liberal-leaning justices in overturning and rendering unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Same-sex marriage has traditionally been one of the most divisive and controversial issues in politics, but this decision had my Facebook newsfeed exploding in approval. Obviously, my personal Facebook is not a proper sampling of the American population, but polls have shown that public opinion on gay marriage has shifted dramatically in the last decade.

<> on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC.

For the first time in history, more people support than oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. Many lawmakers, including several Republicans, have followed suit and announced public support in favor of marriage equality. President Clinton, who signed DOMA in 1996, penned his own opposition to the law. So what brought on this national change of heart?

One possibility lies with the younger generation: compared to the older populations, “Millennials,” people born after 1980, show overwhelming support for marriage equality. The rise of social media may also play a role in shaping the views of young adults, giving way to “trendy” opinions.

And while it’s true that certain views have the tendency to become fad-like (I still remember the explosion of Livestrong bracelets), let’s give ourselves a bit more credit. The defeat of DOMA in the Supreme Court is a significant win for the LGBT community. Maybe it’s accurate that what the “me me me generation” really supports is Facebook likes. But maybe, setting cynicism aside, we are also celebrating an important step for progress and equality.

What do you think about the rulings? Leave us a comment!

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

Eliminating Gene Patents: a Step Toward Equal Access to Healthcare

In a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that human genes cannot be subject to patents. Specifically, this decision ends the monopoly of Myriad Genetics Inc. on BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene testing. Women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations are at high risk for developing ovarian or breast cancer.

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Researchers in the biotechnology industry welcomed the ruling as a step in the right direction for innovation. Although it may seem obvious that genetic material should not be the subject of patents, Myriad was the exclusive provider of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing prior to the ruling.

Researchers believe that the elimination of gene patenting will result in more available and more affordable genetic testing. Currently, BRCA1 and BRCA2 analysis would cost around $4,000, limiting its access to those who have the means to pay the hefty price tag.

Last month, Angelina Jolie became the first high-profile actress to discuss her gene screening and subsequent double mastectomy. Her piece in the New York Times drew national attention to the high cost of testing. In support of wider availability, Jolie writes, “It has to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventative treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live.”

And the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down gene patents is certainly a step in the right direction.

 

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

The Hole in Healthcare Coverage: States’ Rejection of Medicaid Expansion

Almost a year ago, I was working as a research intern at the National Institute of Health. It was during my lunch break when my friend and coworker peered over her smartphone to announce to the table that the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act. Many of us had followed the debates and controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act since President Obama signed it into law in 2010. And for the rest of the day, the excitement in the building was palpable as news of the ruling spread.

Ideally, the Affordable Care Act was indeed something to be excited about. It eliminates many gaps in healthcare, particularly amongst the uninsured. Notable changes to insurance coverage includes young adults’ eligibility to join their parents health plans, an end to exclusion of children and adults with pre-existing conditions, and a prohibition of lifetime or annual limits on benefits.

However, the Supreme Court ruling also struck down the law’s mandated expansion of Medicaid, a loophole that some states are now exploiting. With Wisconsin as the latest state legislature to reject the proposed Medicaid expansion, many of the country’s citizens with the lowest incomes would be among those left uninsured.

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A handy illustration of how the hole created by rejection of Medicaid expansion would lie directly under the poorest.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cited “fiscal uncertainty coming out of Washington, D.C.” among the reasons for his opposition to the Medicaid expansion, but Democrats view the act as another ploy in the GOP’s continued resistance of “Obamacare.” You can check where your state currently stands using this interactive map.

Regardless of the reasons, states like Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, along with their rejection of Medicaid expansion limit the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act. Their resistance also burdens those who are the poorest. And such effects illustrate a dire failure in our basic responsibility to care for those most in need.

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

An Era of Lazy Activism?

Graduation season is upon us! It’s a bittersweet time of year, one filled with goodbyes, excitement, and FedEx boxes. It’s a time to celebrate academic accomplishments, and, accordingly, the ritualistic spectacle of a graduation ceremony is unparalleled.

This year, my own graduation took place a few days following the disastrous Oklahoma tornado, and as we prepared to walk in our cap and gowns, the tragedy was undoubtedly present in all our thoughts. Many of my classmates expressed sympathy and support on social media for the tragedy and its victims – generally accepted as genuine sentiments. But some reactions included an insinuation that the time taken to make a status or tweet would have been better spent donating money or being otherwise proactive in helping.

I couldn’t help but think they had a point. There seems to be no practical reason to write an essay-length status expressing condolences or to post photos of the damage. These often come across as cases of overboard sentimentality, devoid of purpose. To me, it was particularly salient amidst the pomp and circumstance of graduation. I often wondered why we insist on wearing odd-looking caps for the sake of tradition. And why wear black robes in the Baltimore summer? Trust me, those things do not breathe. How much sweating can one graduating class do before we can forgo symbolism? Have we lost our sense of functionality to display?

A similar issue broke out surrounding the recent Prop 8/DOMA Supreme Court hearings, during which a tide of red equal signs appeared on Facebook. It’s easy to mock these gestures as the worst of lazy internet activism (Surely the Supreme Court is counting the number of equal signs on Facebook before making their decision!). But these pictures were not for the sake of persuading the Court or even to incite any specific action. Instead, they were a show of support and a sign of solidarity to those who would be most affected by the Court’s decision.

Massive Tornado Causes Large Swath Of Destruction In Suburban Moore, Oklahoma

Likewise, it may be true that sharing a touching photo of Oklahoma rescue efforts does nothing to contribute to its aid; there are plenty of ways to help directly. But at the same time, let’s not be so quick to scoff at these gestures. Just as the uniformity of our graduation robes (read: heat conductors) signifies our camaraderie as a class and university, people can appreciate emotional support and well-wishes. And it seems to be human nature to try to offer some solace in the face of tragedy, even if it is through a Facebook status or through posted pictures. Action is certainly not to be undervalued, especially if we could all be Carrie Underwood. But one does not have to take away from the other. Practicality is not everything. And expressions, words, symbols of unity are certainly not nothing.

 

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.