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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Sherrilyn Ifill, Tribune News Service (TNS)

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march through the streets of Chicago to protest the housing segregation which plagued that city and many others throughout the nation. Less than two years later, Dr. King was assassinated, but not before he shined a light on the devastating harms of segregation and the crisis of unfair housing. Just a week after Dr. King’s assassination, Congress honored his legacy and changed the course of history by passing the Fair Housing Act with broad bipartisan support. This law worked to dismantle the decades of public and private discrimination which, in the words of then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, George Romney, created a “high income white noose” around the Black inner city. Yet today, this landmark civil rights law is in jeopardy, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a case about whether to overturn foundational fair housing protections.

The Fair Housing Act has helped the country make great strides by combating policies that discriminate against families, the poor, African Americans, Latinos, other communities of color, and people with disabilities. The law has been instrumental in eliminating policies like racially-exclusive zoning rules, subsidies for segregated communities, and redlining, all of which perpetuated racial segregation, stripped individual African Americans of their right to choose where to live, and relegated entire communities to ghettos of inferior opportunity.

Although the Fair Housing Act has already been successful, it still has more work to do because the legacy of these discriminatory policies persists in many areas. Ferguson, Mo., offers a contemporary example of such ruinous effects. While the recent crisis in Ferguson arose from racial bias in policing, the underlying dynamics can be traced back to discriminatory housing polices. In 1876, the City and County of St. Louis were formally separated, spawning various communities outside the City, like Ferguson. White residents eventually fled to these newly developed communities, which used racially restrictive covenants, among other tactics, to exclude African Americans.

These discriminatory covenants remained in place until 1948, when an NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. lawsuit prompted the Supreme Court to declare them unconstitutional. In response, many St. Louis suburbs implemented exclusionary zoning restrictions, creating white affluent enclaves and relegating African-Americans families to urban areas and inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson. Federal and local officials further supported these arrangements through discriminatory subsidies, loan requirements, and public housing programs.

The vestiges of these policies continue to drive residential patterns in Ferguson and numerous other cities. Thus, government-sponsored segregation, along with private acts of discrimination, are directly responsible for today’s racial isolation. The Fair Housing Act remains essential to redress entrenched segregation in places like these and remedy the situation for future generations.

Yet in the same week that we celebrate Dr. King’s life, the Supreme Court threatens to upend a key provision of the Act, and with it a crucial tool for eradicating residential segregation. Shortly, the Court will hear arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. At stake is a legal protection which ensures that banks, landlords, and others use policies that apply fairly to everyone. The protection also prevents mortgage lenders, for example, from adopting policies that seem neutral in theory, but unfairly exclude or segregate particular communities in practice. Over forty years of legal precedent uphold this central protection of the Fair Housing Act, including rulings by eleven federal circuit courts across the country, and enforcement efforts by Democratic and Republican presidents alike dating back to the Nixon administration.

The outcome in this case will determine whether the Act can continue to be used, as it has for decades, as a tool to replace discriminatory policies with ones that roll back the tide of residential segregation. This is a unique time when the nation’s eyes have been refocused on the racial dynamics that undergird our society. Let us seize the moment and celebrate the vision and endeavors of Dr. King — and hope that the Supreme Court will do the same by allowing his work to continue through the Fair Housing Act.

Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Readers may send her email at

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at