April 11, 2023 — The future of the multiracial, multiethnic democracy of the United States remains an open question, said Janai S. Nelson, the keynote speaker at this year’s Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Lecture.
As President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, Nelson is on the frontlines of an organization "advancing our democracy, making it more inclusive and making it live up to its constitutional ideals." In her keynote presentation on “The Future of Our Multi-Racial, Multi-Ethnic Democracy,” Nelson outlined the predominant threats to America’s democracy, including voter suppression and white supremacy.
"Our work is as critical as ever," Nelson said. "People's blood, sweat, and tears have been shed to make democracy come to its fruition in this country. It has not yet been fulfilled."
"Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965—despite high rhetoric and values of those who many call our Founding Fathers—we were not a democracy, not truly. Not until Aug. 6, 1965, when Texas' own Lyndon B. Johnson signed that voting rights act into law," Nelson said.
Though victories have been won in the realm of civil rights legislation, "many people still today, especially Black people and people of color, are still unable to fully and freely exercise the right to have their vote counted and, most importantly, to elect representatives whom they can hold accountable to represent their interests," Nelson said. "The proliferation of voter suppression laws and even more direct efforts to sabotage our election processes makes it fair to say that, in critical ways, our now 58-year-old multiracial and multiethnic democracy is in peril."
This peril can be pinpointed to what Nelson calls the "trifecta of assault," which includes attacks on the right to vote, the right to protest, and the "assault on truth."
"Our democracy is being stretched and tested today in ways we haven't seen in the last generation," Nelson said, adding that these assaults are "directly linked to our past and rooted in a fear of the future of our multiracial democracy, who it includes, who it will empower, how it will function for those whose power hasn't been fully realized and those whose power may be waning."
Nelson pointed to the weaponization of terms like "woke," CRT (critical race theory) and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), decisions by institutions of higher education to forego DEI factors in hiring, and Texas State Legislation she says is designed to ban CRT, DEI and eliminate tenure (Senate Bills 16, 17 and 18). Furthermore, "a wave of voter suppression laws," such as Texas Senate Bill No. 2 and House Bill 39 all portend "a concerning trend of legislation aimed at criminalizing voting in Texas and new voting penalties."
And it is "no coincidence" these encroachments "coincide with an unprecedented demographic transformation of this country's population," Nelson said, citing demographic data showing just how multiracial and multiethnic the U.S. is becoming.
"Politicians are forging ahead with these very policies," Nelson said. "In this moment when change is happening on all fronts. Whether that change will propel us forward to a place of equity and inclusion or bring us backwards to … increased inequality is the question of our generation."
This yearning for justice and equal rights isn't new, according to commentator Tara T. Green, Ph.D. and CLASS Distinguished Professor and Chair of African American Studies at the University of Houston. Green offered an overview of the role of Black women in the suffrage movement, highlighting figures like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and Ida B. Wells.
These women realized "the best way they could help themselves was to have the ballot," Green said. Women like Dunbar-Nelson wanted to "make sure Black women had a voice" because they had the future in mind.
"It may not be the future we are still struggling for, but it was a future that at least acknowledged that women could and should have the right to vote."
Commentator and UH Associate Professor in Political Science Jeronimo Cortina, Ph.D. offered insights from his vantage point in political science. According to research from McKinsey and Company, Black-owned businesses "would generate $1.6 trillion more than they do today" in a parity scenario where Black-owned businesses matched the share of the population and scale of industry peers. Yet, "that economic power has not been transitioned to political power," according to Cortina.
The Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Lecture is named in honor of Rice University alumnus and University of Houston Law Center professor and award-winning scholar, Yale L. Rosenberg. This year’s lecture was moderated by Emily Berman, Associate Professor of Law and Royce R. Till Professorship at the University of Houston Law Center.
Today, Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Fund supports a student writing prize and continues to highlight leading legal minds through its namesake lecture.
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