Can the President outlaw racial discrimination?

At one point my sociology class was talking about racial classifications and I revived the idea of this article from the ashes. The idea of this article came from a passage from one of my favorite books by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: “The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, plus the set of laws passed in the late 1860s, and early 1870s, gave the President the authority to wipe out racial discrimination. The Constitution demanded the President execute the laws, but no President had used that power. Neither did Truman. For instance, he asked Congress for legislation “prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation facilities,” but specific legislation in 1887 already barred discrimination in interstate transportation and had never been enforced by executive action.” I wondered if what he said was even possible.

Under the Constitution, the President affirms to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” which is put in stone when they take the oath of office. Part of that includes what Zinn talks about, the 14th and 15th amendments, the former says that states cannot deny citizens “life, liberty, or property” or “the equal protection of the laws” while the latter says the U.S. government or states cannot deny voting rights because of race or color. But this isn’t only what Zinn is writing about: he also mentions federal laws passed to help African-Americans. These include the Force Act of 1870 which prevented terror, force, force or bribery used to prevent blacks from voting because of their race the Force Act of 1871 which allows federal oversight of state and municipal elections if any two citizens in a town of 20,000 or more request it, and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 or Ku Klux Klan Act which made the KKK tactics federal offenses, along with giving the President additional power to deal with the KKK’s activities. In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Act expanded these protections, as this law “forbids any interstate common carrier by motor vehicle [i.e. buses, trains]…to subject any person to unjust discrimination” and requires that “terminal and restaurant facilities and services” be made “available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation…without discrimination.” These amendments and federal laws could in Zinn’s mind wipe out racial discrimination; however there are many different circumstances that have developed since 1887 along with additional civil rights legislation which changes the circumstances.

In the later 1950s and throughout the 1960s, all sorts of civil rights legislation was passed because of the power of the Civil Rights Movement. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which created a short lived executive commission to investigate civil rights, a still existing Civil Rights Commission which is seemingly corrupted and mirrored the Civil Rights laws of the 1860s, saying that it is prohibited to coerce, intimidate and interfere with people’s voting rights in Congressional and Presidential elections (the Attorney General can enforce this). But there were some loopholes, so in 1960 another law was passed, which again were very similar to the Force Acts in the 1870s, as they allowed federal inspection of voter registration on a local level and created penalties for those who obstructed one’s voting rights. Once again, with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was basically the same as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (banned racial segregation in places that serve the general public) but it expanded it. Racial, ethnic, national, sex and religious discrimination was prohibited, along with certain “unequal” requirements for voter registration requirements. Even more important was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which once again prohibits discriminatory voting practices as of an 1982 amendment including outlawing of literacy tests and poll taxes, also requires that the DOJ or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia approve any change in “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting…[in any] covered jurisdiction,” (most of the Southern states), a provision that has come up often with Voter ID laws. Four years after the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which just like the Civil Rights Act in 1866, makes housing discrimination illegal on racial and ethnic groups illegal, except this act provided a way to enforce it on a federal level while expanding it to gender, family and disability-based discrimination in housing (after the amendments in 1974 and 1988). In 1991, the Civil Rights Act that year just clarified certain issues with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with regard to employment. These laws are not only what a President could use in terms of racial discrimination.

Since 1915, a number of different Supreme Court decisions give the President even more power in this area. In Guinn v. United States (1915), the high court said that Oklahoma’s “grandfather clause” used to disenfranchise African-American voters was unconstitutional, a decision that could possibly be evoked against measures that limit African-American’s right to vote. The two decisions in United States v. Classic (1941) and Smith v. Allwright (1944) could be evoked to protect from horrid Voter ID measures, as the former empowers Congress to protect rights of electors in state primary elections and the latter says non-whites could vote in elections. As for education, there is a plethora of cases of this decision: Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla. (1948) says that colleges cannot deny admittance based on race, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) prohibits segregation in a public institution of higher learning, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954) stopped segregation in public schools and Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) declared that racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia violated the Fifth Amendment. Other decisions could be used to bolster the power to fight racial discrimination like Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) which said Civil Rights Act of 1964 was constitutional, affirming racial discrimination in public places and in public accommodations is illegal, South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) which upheld the Voting Rights Act, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) which declared that Kent County’s desegregation plan was unconstitutional and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) which established busing as a solution as part of desegregation (limited by Milliken v. Bradley (1974)). These decisions all together would be another tool that could be used by the President against racial discrimination.

I believe from this evidence in the civil rights legislation passed in the 1860s, 1870s, 1950s, 1960s, 1990s, the plethora of favorable Supreme Court decisions and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the President definitely has the “authority to wipe out racial discrimination.” In my mind there is no question about it. With the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1968, there is the ability to eliminate redlining, a highly segregationist-like tactic that still exists in many cities. The Constitution demands that the President execute the “Supreme Law of the Land” (a.k.a. federal law) and the amendments themselves. I believe that Americans must push the President (especially since he’s half-black) to enforce these laws to the fullest of their extent and wipe out racial discrimination nationwide.


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