Universalism and Civil Rights (With Notes on Voting Rights after Shelby)
40 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2013 Last revised: 22 Apr 2014
Date Written: December 15, 2013
After the Supreme Court invalidated the core of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance regime in Shelby County v. Holder, civil rights activists proposed a variety of legislative responses. One set of responses, which gained quick favor in influential precincts in the legal academy, sought to move beyond measures like the Voting Rights Act that targeted voting discrimination based on race or ethnicity. These responses instead sought to eliminate certain problematic practices that place too great a burden on any individual’s vote. Responses like these are universalist, because rather than seeking to protect any particular group against discrimination, at least as a formal matter they provide uniform protections to everyone. As Bruce Ackerman shows in his latest We the People volume, voting rights activists confronted a similar set of questions — and at least some of them opted for a universalist approach — during the campaign to eliminate the poll tax.
The voting rights context is hardly unique. Across an array of different contexts, scholars and activists have proposed universalist responses to address problems that group-oriented civil rights approaches have not fully resolved. Universalist responses have many possible strengths: tactically, in securing political support for and broader judicial implementation of laws that promote civil rights interests; substantively, in aggressively attacking the structures that lead to inequality; and expressively, in avoiding essentializing identity and emphasizing human commonality across groups. But they have possible drawbacks along all three of these dimensions as well. Although scholars have addressed some of these strengths and drawbacks in the context of specific proposals for universal responses to civil rights problems, no work has attempted to examine these issues comprehensively.
This essay attempts such a comprehensive examination. It argues that neither universalistic nor particularistic approaches can fully address our civil rights problems. Even in any specific context — whether voting, higher education, employment, disability, or the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment — neither universalistic nor particularistic approaches can provide the complete answer. Rather, the proper mix of universalistic and particularistic policies requires a highly context-specific analysis. Nonetheless, there are some common dynamics of universalistic and targeted civil rights policies, and these dynamics offer lessons for policymakers approaching any given civil rights context. This essay aims to draw out some of these general lessons and then sketch how they might apply to the civil rights context in which questions of universalism are most acute at the moment — the context of voting discrimination. The essay argues that the proper response to Shelby County will fail unless it goes well beyond universal protections of voting rights. Rather, the voting rights regime must also provide robust protection against race discrimination specifically.
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