Race, Class, and Structural Discrimination: On Vulnerability within the Political Process

Source: Atiba R. Ellis, Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development, Volume 28 Issue 1, Summer 2015

From the abstract:
A number of recent judicial and legislative transformations have defined the modem scope of the right to vote. These transformations have arguably narrowed African-Americans’ ability to exercise the franchise. These changes include the decision in Shelby County v. Holder to limit the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the seeming consensus around the propriety of heightened regulation of the right to vote through implementing voter identification laws, and the long-standing consensus around felon disenfranchisement laws. All three of these issues implicate the African-American community in particular as some have argued that these are the enduring legacies of – and the imposition of – a new era of Jim Crow.

Yet, another more recent event must refocus our attention on the issue of the African Americans and the franchise. Specifically, the events in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 revealed police abuse in both the killing of Michael Brown and the militarized siege of policing in the wake of subsequent protests. The examination of Ferguson that followed the unrest of that summer and fall revealed a structure built on the poverty of the St. Louis suburb’s African-American residents. The media also discovered that these same residents of Ferguson were effectively locked out of the political process.

At the time, this appeared to be the result of the phenomenon of structural racism and exposed the vulnerability of such communities to political domination. Indeed, this paper seeks to extend that discussion and to give initial thoughts about the key issues that lie at the intersection of race and class within the American political process. From it, it is plausible to conclude that a lockout dynamic within the political process exists at a level that is far removed from concerns of typical high theory law-of-politics jurisprudence. As will be discussed below, this lockout problem has been examined on the levels of partisans and political process, with an accompanying disdain for the race-conscious vulnerabilities that seem to undergird the political problems that the Ferguson situation illustrates.

The goal of this paper is to illustrate this racially intersecting lockout problem and to argue for the importance of attending to this problem within the context of the law of democracy. Specifically, this paper will illuminate the heart of this problem: the intersecting vulnerabilities that poor people of color suffer from within the political and economic process. Such vulnerability lies at the heart of both the historical and present-day discrimination within the franchise (and the structures that affect it). This paper focuses on the idea that vulnerability to the majoritarian forces and inequities in the political process ought to serve as a factor in defining the harms that minority populations suffer within the political process. The contention here is that such vulnerability premised on the confluence of historical factors such as race and socioeconomic status creates a particular risk that the interests of such groups will not be met and that the people within these groups will not be able to participate fully within the political process.