Tag Archives: Urban affairs

Black People, the Supreme Court, and Our Rights.

Elliot Millner, J.D.

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The United States Supreme Court recently made a number of decisions that continued this conservative-leaning courts pattern of taking a jackhammer to the barriers put in place in order to protect the rights of people historically susceptible to discriminatory and oppressive conduct, which definitely includes  Black people.

The most recent decision resulted from a case involving a group of white firefighters in New Haven, CT, who alleged that the city of New Haven was guilty of “reverse discrimination” for refusing to continue using a promotion exam that showed a clear disparate impact on Black and Hispanic firefighters(If the exam had been used, 17 whites, 2 Hispanics, and 0 Blacks would have been promoted).  The court, in a 5-4 decision, sided with the white firefighters, stating that the city of New Haven’s “fear of litigation” was not enough of a reason to not use the exam, nor was the disparate impact on Blacks and Hispanics in itself sufficient reason. The court gave a new standard requiring a “strong basis of evidence” to show that the city may be liable for disparate impact on a protected group, instead of the previous “good faith basis” that had been applied in previous cases. Although the court did not give a rule as to what constitutes a strong-basis of evidence, it can be easily concluded that the result of this decision will be to make it more difficult to prove claims of disparate impact regarding the use of promotional exams, both in public and private employment.

Combine this decision with the courts decision in a recent age-discrimination case, and a decision by the court blocking  the right of potentially innocent people to obtain post-conviction DNA testing in order to prove their  innocence(a decision the Obama administration supported-another disturbing pattern), and what we have are clear warning flags that the rights of many people (Black people in particular) are in serious jeopardy.  

It is an observed trend that when the economy is not doing well, employment discrimination claims rise. As Black people, many of us are also aware that we are often the first to suffer during times of economic hardship, and that we also generally feel the effects more than others. The saying “last hired, first fired” is not a myth, but a sad reality for many of us. When times get hard, employers are more likely to attempt to find reasons to get rid of employees. Most employers will do this in a legal and ethical manner(or so we hope). However, the reality is that many will not, and when they don’t, they are far more likely to use those unjust methods of firing(or not promoting, or not hiring) against Black people.

The courts decisions are a continuation of its willful ignorance, and an example of how far from being a “post-race” society we really are. The court is simply a microcosm of the rest of white supremacist/white privileged society, which is using the election of a Black president as a sort of “get out of worrying about rights” card. Although most people who don’t have their heads buried in the sand realize that racism, specifically institutional) and discrimination are still issues, and that most of this conduct is not done in a blatant manner, the Supreme Court continues to make it so that a person almost has to witness or hear the act of discrimination in order to be successful. It is highly doubtful that many people will be caught saying “I designed this test so that no Blacks would be promoted”, or “I am not hiring that person because they are too old”.

The court, and many others in America with self-serving motives, are strongly pushing the “post-race mythology”. This includes numbers of Black people as well. It is easy for those who still occupy the majority of positions of power(and yes, white people do, regardless of who our president is) to argue that things are equal now, and that there need not be any more focus on the rights of those who have been historically oppressed. It is also easier for those Black people who have achieved some level of financial success to ignore the realities still faced by far too many of us. Those who have and are prospering from the status quo, have the least motivation to want to change it. This approach of promoting the myth of racial harmony and equality over the reality of continued racism and discrimination will only result in more harm for Black people in the long term. The impetus for challenging this drive to promote the illusion of racial equality must come from us.

We must be vocal and active in the face of this machine that is working to take us backwards in time. Allowing ourselves to be blinded by a Black face in the presidential office is the worst mistake we could make. That is not an attack on President Obama, it is a message to those “fans” who think they are doing him or us a favor by not challenging him(or other elected officials, or the courts) on issues that may have a great lasting impact on us.

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Troy Davis: Life/Death Around the Corner?

Troy Davis

Troy Davis

by Elliot Millner, J.D.

I have faced execution and the torment of saying goodbye to my family three times in the last two years and I may experience that trauma yet again; I would not wish this on my worst enemy and to know I am innocent only compounds the injustice I am facing.”- Troy Davis, from Georgia’s death row, on facing a fourth possible execution date.

For those who are unaware, Troy Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for about 18 years, after being convicted of murdering police officer Mark McPhail(Mr. Davis has maintained his innocence from the very beginning).

It would take pages to give all of the details of Troy Davis’ case, however I will say that there was no physical evidence found(including a murder weapon) connecting Troy Davis to the killing of Officer McPhail; he was convicted largely on the basis of inconsistent and often contradictory eyewitness testimony. The vast majority of those prosecution eyewitnesses have since recanted or changed their testimony implicating Mr. Davis, and one of those who hasn’t is Sylvester Coles, the main alternative suspect presented by the defense during Troy Davis’ trial. In addition, there have been multiple allegations of police coercion and the usage of unethical interrogation techniques.

(For additional information on Troy Davis’ case, or to get information on how to act, check out www.amnestyusa.org/death-penalty/troy-davis and http://www.troyanthonydavis.org/.).

Troy Davis’ ordeal has been going on for nearly two decades now, and is nearing its end, one way or the other. He has had numerous appeals denied(most recently in April 2009), habeas corpus petitions denied, stays of execution granted and expired, and also had one request for clemency denied by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles(the same board that would decide any future request for clemency regarding Troy Davis).

As absurd as it sounds, relative to many others on death row, Troy Davis is ‘lucky’. He is lucky in the sense that his case has drawn national and international attention, from a broad range of activists and celebrities. He has lawyers and organizations working around the clock to save his life, and draw attention to the injustices present in his particular case, and also to those injustices present in the application of the death penalty in the United States in general(particularly in cases involving Black defendants and white victims, such as this).

Compared to the multitude of nameless, faceless(and disproportionately Black and poor) people occupying death rows across the U.S., Troy Davis has a chance at life, however slim. He is the newest face of the anti-death penalty movement, and the most recent example of a Black man being sentenced to death for the murder of a white person(in this case also a police officer) under very questionable circumstances.

It is often difficult for people to get outraged regarding someone convicted of murder and sentenced to death row. Regardless of whether a person is pro or anti-death penalty, the reality is that many of the people on death row are guilty of murder, sometimes involving extreme mitigating factors, such as the murder of a child, or torture, even cannibalism. That is not the issue here. Even though there is significant evidence raising doubt as to whether Troy Davis murdered Officer McPhail, the ultimate issue is about the fairness of the process and equality of treatment, and in my view there is more than sufficient evidence showing that Troy Davis had the deck stacked against him, as is often the case for Black and poor defendants.

Act in some way to help Troy Davis, whether it be writing a letter or spreading the word. However, do not forget those others who do not have the same publicity. This issue is bigger than Troy Davis, and it is important for us to address anything involving the unjust treatment of a Black person(regardless of where they are), especially when it involves the ultimate penalty.