The Politics of Anti-Racism
I’ve been doing some reflecting lately on the politics of anti-racism, mostly prompted by last Friday, the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. As most of us know, this was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement that gave way to groundbreaking legislation that eliminated racial barriers in our country.
So this is probably a good opportunity for us to remember that anti-racism is political.
Throughout much of our national discourse lately, a lot of us having being saying, “Fighting racism shouldn’t be political. This isn’t a political issue, it’s a moral issue.”
And I get it. I’ve been saying that myself.
But we need to acknowledge anti-racism as political because in order to eradicate racism, we need to implement policy changes that either compensate for the injustices of past centuries or that protect marginalized communities from people in positions of power who might be acting discriminatory or just insensitively. It’s not enough for all of us to say, “Racism is bad.” We need our politics to reflect that sentiment.
Now, just because it’s political doesn’t mean it has to be partisan. It shouldn’t be divisive. This is an issue where both Republicans and Democrats should be coming together and finding a solution. After all, we agree that it’s a moral issue. And neither party should be claiming superiority.
As an example, let’s take a look at the man who is probably history’s best-known civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He never openly aligned himself with any political party. In fact, he said it was important someone like him be in what he called “non-alignment,” as this allowed him to remain critical of both parties, and he was not a servant to either party or a master of either party.
What we DO know about Dr. King’s politics:
· He called Senator Paul Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, the greatest of all senators for his civil rights work
· He said he would have endorsed JFK for a second term
· He spoke out against Barry Goldwater
· He embraced Democratic socialism because he believed capitalism couldn’t provide the basic necessities that the American people need
Let’s also talk about some elected officials who were influential in the civil rights movement. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, who signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act, was probably the most influential politician during this period, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Before him there was President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, who signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. And after Johnson, the Department of Justice formed its Civil Rights Division under Attorney General William Rogers, a Republican.
More importantly, there’s been bipartisan support for upholding the tenants of all this legislation in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement. For example, in 1973, the Department of Justice under President Nixon enforced the Fair Housing Act, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, when it sued the Trump Corporation for refusing to rent property to black people.
The big problem we’re facing right now in 2020 is that nobody wants to admit to being racist, nobody wants to say that racism is a good thing, but the law reflects something else – we’re not aggressively pursuing legislation that helps people of color.
There are two important issues at hand right now. Let’s start by taking a closer look at the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Back in 2013, the Supreme Court took on the case of Shelby County v. Holder and basically ruled that the data behind Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is outdated and Congress needs to make new laws. Section 5 was the part of the Civil Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal preclearance before they make laws or practices regarding voting.
So, basically, Congress has to make new laws about this. That should be easy enough. But the legislation that would put those laws in place — the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — isn’t being passed. Without this legislation, states have been free to enact laws and practices that make it harder for people to vote, especially people of color, low-income people, the elderly, and young people. Some of these practices might be fewer resources for non-English speakers, closing polling locations, limiting absentee voting, and so forth.
Now, people who support strict voting laws have their reasons, so please don’t think I’m asserting those people are racist. They believe that strict voting laws make it harder for people to commit voter fraud, and that’s a noble cause. Nobody wants voter fraud. But what the John Lewis Voting Rights Act does is require these states to prove they’re not enacting these stricter voting practices to disenfranchise any voters. Let me reiterate that: States would just have to prove they’re not passing laws with the intention of suppressing voters, and they do not want to have to do that.
The Voting Rights Act has seen decades of bipartisan affirmation, but that’s not the case anymore. All of a sudden, certain politicians seem opposed to making it possible for people of color to vote. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which was originally called the Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed the House in December 2019, but it has been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk since then. The Senate has not had a chance to vote on it. So…what’s going on?
The other political issue that demands our attention with regard to dismantling racism is preventing racially charged acts of police misconduct. Back in May, everyone from both sides of the political aisle was collectively horrified by what happened to George Floyd and we wanted to ensure this didn’t happen ever again. This wasn’t a partisan thing.
For a couple of weeks, everyone was listening to their black friends about their experiences facing bias, and everyone was listening with the intent of dismantling racism. Nearly every person of color can tell you about a negative interaction they’ve had with law enforcement at one point or another. Even Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina, spoke before the Senate in 2016 and told a story about how he was pulled over by police officers who somehow couldn't reconcile seeing a black man driving an expensive car.
Need further proof? USA Today put together a database of police discipline records reflecting thousands of cases of misconduct like tampering with evidence, falsifying reports, and using excessive force. The disturbing part is that less than 10% of this misconduct gets investigated!
And the thing is, the police departments shouldn't have to carry this reputation. The police department should be an admirable and respectable public service that we all can depend on, regardless of the color of our skin.
That’s why the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was intended to hold police officers who are committing misconduct accountable for their actions. The legislation sought to ban chokeholds, end racial and religious profiling, eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement, establish a national standard for operations of police departments, streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force, and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations. Why on earth would anyone NOT want these laws passed after we all saw video footage of a police office betray his oath of office and murder a man right in the middle of the street?
But like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, this legislation is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk. The Senate hasn’t voted on it, and the Senate hasn’t proposed its own alternative.
So, what can we do?
Well, besides calling our senators and demanding that the Senate hold on a vote on both of these pieces of legislation, let’s commit to having conversations among ourselves. Let’s continue to seek real solutions. Let’s confront these problems without pointing partisan fingers. Let’s find out why anyone would oppose what should be bipartisan legislation and amend it to address any concerns that critics might have.
Because I, for one, want to have these conversations. I want to hear from police officers about what we can do to ensure their positions still command respect while still holding accountable anyone who betrays their oath of office. I want to talk to people who are concerned about voter fraud and figure out how we can make voting more secure without enforcing practices that disenfranchise people. There HAVE to be solutions to these problems.
And that’s what I want to stay focused on — solutions. Anti-racism IS political, but it doesn’t have to be divisive. Three months ago, we were all focused on dismantling racism. Somehow, that’s gotten lost. Let’s not lose it. Let’s keep working toward it.