06/28/2013 01:48 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2013

Civil Rights and Mixed Emotions

With so many different outcomes on the legal and civil rights fronts these last couple of weeks, mixed feelings were bound to arise for anyone even mildly concerned about social justice. From the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act to marriage equality taking a giant leap forward, millions of people are left at very different places in the struggle for justice and equality.

Earlier we saw the Court take a swipe at affirmative action in higher education by not necessarily supporting Abigail Fisher in her case against race-based college admissions, but by also not explicitly supporting the use of race as part of many determining factors in college admissions. Much has been written about Ms. Fisher and her crusade against race-based affirmative action, but one of the biggest rubs is that five years later, she still doesn't seem to be any more enlightened about her situation. She's happy with the Court's decision and glad the University of Texas will probably no longer be using race as part of their admissions considerations, but she seems to still lack the self-awareness to process what she's really done and why. Perhaps it would be less bothersome if she acknowledged that her test scores and GPA were not high enough to guarantee her admission to the University of Texas or if she knew with 100 percent certainty that a brown person with a lower GPA and test scores bumped her from the university's roster. But she doesn't. Instead, she plows ahead guided by what feels like obtuse entitlement without a care in the world about what she's selfishly destroying for countless others, fellow White women included.

Following that, the Supreme Court dealt brown people a further blow by striking down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (the section that gives the formula for how to determine what changes can be made to voting procedures) which, in turn, makes section 5 (the section that mandates that certain jurisdictions must have federal approval before making changes to voting procedures) unenforceable. Great. The South, where the majority of the American Black population still resides, has a long history of voter suppression that has led right up through the most recent presidential election. Even though the VRA doesn't traditionally apply to northern states, voter suppression has been a major issue there too. So it's not as if elections have been a piece of cake since 1965, rendering the VRA outdated. Elections have just been less difficult for brown folks, despite the many tactics that are still often employed. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "The sad irony of today's decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective... Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." She is exactly right.

Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl presented a tough case involving the Indian Child Welfare Act. On the one hand, you have a family that has adopted and fallen in love with a child (whose ethnicity had been identified by her mother solely as Hispanic without acknowledgement that the child's father is Cherokee) and on the other you have a father who claims to have mistakenly given up his parental rights under false pretenses and wanted protection under an act that was created to keep Native American families and communities in tact (an act that was put into place in response to decades of Native American children being removed from homes, often placed in foster care and boarding schools, and being stripped of their culture). The Court decided that the ICWA "does not apply when, as here, the relevant parent never had custody of the child."

Many Americans recently watched democracy in action (mainly via social media) as Texas state senator Wendy Davis, whose seat was actually saved by the VRA, filibustered for women's reproductive rights by taking a 13 hour stand, literally, against SB5, a proposed bill that would have drastically cut abortion procedures, services, and clinics; restricted access to physicians, clinics, and medication; and placed a larger burden on doctors who perform abortions. While the Texas GOP worked overtime, again literally, to put an end to the filibuster in time to vote on the bill, Senator Davis and her allies stalled the process and made game-changing noise until the final hour in order to block the vote in historic fashion. It was messy, nail-biting, frustrating, and awe-inspiring... and it worked... until Republican Governor Rick Perry intervened and called for a 30-day special session to revisit the bill.

On the bright side, the much anticipated decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 brought forth good news. While not allowing for universal marriage, the Court did make it clear that LGBT couples who are married in states that allow same-sex marriage are indeed legally married, must be recognized as legally married by the federal government, and must be given the same rights and responsibilities as other legally married couples. It also ruled that same-sex marriage is legal once again in California. It's not perfect, but definitely a big step in the right direction if progress and equality happen to be your jam.

So why the mixed emotions? In theory, civil rights are all interconnected and fit into a broader, and idealistic, framework of justice for all. In reality, they are often fragmented, pitted against one another, and at odds. Where DOMA and the VRA are concerned, judicial activism played a key role that many probably find hypocritical. In his dissent of the ruling on DOMA, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the majority for what he perceived to be judicial activism, yet most would argue that he engaged in glaring judicial activism as part of the majority that struck down section 4 of the VRA. Arguments against the use of race in affirmative action are the same arguments that can be used in favor of marriage equality. The battle for women's reproductive rights is constantly uphill and riddled with heavy opposition. Voter suppression has always been a problem for Black people (as well as other people of color, people with low incomes, and the elderly) and will now worsen with a weakened VRA. And the laws in place to protect Native American communities can't work if they aren't supported. Rather than strengthening the rights of a broad array of marginalized people, the Court selectively doled out protections in inconsistent ways, leaving many people invested in social justice feeling conflicted. Certainly the LGBT community, which includes many people of color, and its allies should be celebrating a huge victory. We just have to remember that the collective struggle for civil rights is not over, no matter who tries to divide and conquer.