On Friday, Feb. 22, Vassar students, faculty, alums and Poughkeepsie residents filled the Vogelstein Center’s Martel Theater to converse with seventh President and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) Sherrilyn Ifill ’84. A civil rights attorney, law professor and national expert on voting rights and judicial selection, Ifill engaged in an hour-long dialogue that was moderated by Professor of History Rebecca Edwards.
The conversation touched on a myriad of contemporary issues confronting equality and suffrage rights for Black communities, examining the connection between modern-day conditions and patterns in U.S. racial history.
The first half of the talk offered insight into LDF’s emphases on navigating contemporary civil rights discourse amidst what Ifill termed “a difficult and unrelenting time” of inundating flows of information. She indicated that LDF focuses on four major areas constituting the core of issues affecting equality, access and justice. “These cutting edges are voting rights and political participation, criminal justice, economic justice, which takes you to affordable housing, discrimination in jobs and transportation, environmental justice and whatnot,” she illuminated.
Ifill then carefully examined each component of the tasks LDF undertakes. Regarding voting rights, she said, “Voting rights, out of all, is our priority. At LDF we believe that being able to represent yourself and having yourself represented by someone lies at the core of democracy.” Ifill then addressed the current conditions of voting rights, stating that the rest of the country is seeing a pertinent but emergently pernicious reality, one incarnated in landmarks such as the 2013 spring court case Shelby County v. Holder. “Civil rights movements…are not only about the symbolic act of casting votes,” added Ifill. “Being able to participate in the political process equally also means the ability of Black voters and Black families to control their own destiny.”
Narrating the perpetually transforming conditions of access to voting rights, Edwards further commented on equal enfranchisement: “I study the 19th century, including the Reconstruction Era, when the U.S. made a commitment to equal enfranchisement but then discovered that the nation did not have the political will or public commitment to uphold it … the U.S. has had a theoretical commitment to equal enfranchisement but, to paraphrase George Orwell, some people have always been more equal than others.”
Joan Sherman ’54, another alumna present at the talk, further commented on how voting rights have transformed. She discussed how young people poured into the South in the 1960s to explain the Voting Rights Act to those who had not been enfranchised and encourage them to register to vote. However, Sherman indicated, “The Voting Rights Act only managed to hold the opposition at bay. Parts of the Act have been overturned by the Supreme Court.”
Gerrymandering, limited hours, days and sites for voting, teamed with unlimited financial resources permitted by the Court’s Citizens United decision, have contributed to voter suppression, jeopardizing the political power of the individual. “In much the way our natural environment has been damaged, so too I fear our socioeconomic and political environment now has been severely impacted,” Sherman stressed. “Our courts have been politicized and the rule of law is jeopardized.”
According to Ifill, justice, fairness, equality and shared power are non-negotiable in a democracy. Her prescription to mitigate the societal ills Sherman put forth is a simple one: more voting from ordinary people.
In their familiar frontier of the justice court, LDF also faces strategic challenges given the current makeup of the U.S. court of justice. According to Ifill, the unprecedented lack of qualifications in elected judges and abundance of extremist views manifested in attempts to overturn constitutional decisions emanated from landmarks such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka pose a precarious prospect for preservation and expansion of former, present and future civil rights actions.
Transitioning the dialogue to one between Ifill and the audience, Edwards posited a question on the role Vassar and Poughkeepsie communities play to support LDF missions. In response to this question, Ifill recounted the 14th Amendment that gave birthright citizenship to individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or social status, evoking the obligation to updated possession of information and the responsible exercise of suffrages. Calling for invigoration in one’s contact with local powers while speaking against deliberate othering in political involvement and understanding due to differences in political alliances, she reminded attendees of what lay at the marrows of citizenship and democracy.
Examining missions bestowed upon members in liberal arts environments, Sherman added: “Among our goals, encouragement of excellence and respect for diversity are never out of date. As Vassar students, we were challenged ‘to lead energetic and purposeful lives.’ Ifill encouraged us to be informed, to speak up, to participate in political discourse. The liberal arts persuade us to [act] with personal integrity, respect for others and…critical judgment.”
In the open conversation that followed, Ifill directed questions of equality to existing covert biases in the booming technological and scientific private sectors. Here, she called to attention the fight for desegregation of public accommodations—from ones provided by traditionally materialized spaces like Starbucks to those emerging on algorithmic operations. These algorithms, posited Ifill, are entrenched with human prejudices and further purport the exclusion of already underrepresented communities from services offered by modern science and technological evolutions. Citing computer scientist Joy Buolamwini’s research on the existing incapacities of facial recognition software, Ifill argued for government involvement and legal regulations in these spaces.
A request for attempts to rekindle national conversations across political lines solicited Ifill’s further examination of the mental division rippling through the nation. Ifill spoke against current levitations toward political rationalism in cases of persecution against immigrants and POC groups: “We have lost our ways on what keeps us united and have thrown these values into a pot of ideologies, a cauldron where you can stand on one side or another. We are confusing partisanship with the bedrock principles that keep us moving. Until we have decided that we are human beings first, and what binds us is our desire to love in a democracy, [we will] continue to see segregation and persecution and torture…among average people.”
Regarding the impact public conversations such as this hold, Edwards added: “[Iffil’s] career shows that we might really think of liberal arts as ‘civic arts,’ essential to both self-knowledge and good citizenship.” In the boiling waters of political and social unrest, these interactions challenge the interpretation of our reality, direct us all back to the tenets of our humanity and reverberate the spirits that have been driving revolutions and evolutions in civil rights battles—a simple yet perennial message of faith, fairness and hope.