Friday, August 1, 2014

"Where Do We Go From Here: Civil Rights, Equality, and Class"

ACSblog posted today this intriguing commentary by Professor Atiba R. Ellis reminding us that the focus of civil rights activists throughout the 1960s was not limited to legal equality, but also to the institutional poverty that resulted from years of its denial. According to Ellis, this realtiy has important implications today. The title of this post comes from Ellis's piece, in which he writes:  

The “two societies” problem persists today and imperils our progress on civil rights. The War on Drugs and the growth of mass incarceration continue to impact largely urban, poor minority communities directly and disrupt their opportunities to grow beyond the underclass. The debates continue over the appropriate role for government in providing more or less substantial support through welfare, job training, education, and other supports to overcome poverty.  While civil rights advocates argue for the growth of such programs, conservatives argue that these failings are attributable to dysfunctional lifestyles.


Our considerations of civil rights should be rooted in the recognition of the existence of a largely racialized political and economic underclass that suffers the brunt of the long history of racial subordination and poverty, and that cannot necessarily protect itself due to the narrow construction of the remedies surrounding race, and the near lack of remedies around class altogether. It follows that as we look forward to the twenty-first century phase of the long civil rights movement, we should not abandon race-conscious remedies, as the conservative Supreme Court majority and some commentators have suggested. Instead, race-conscious remedies should have an added focus on issues that address the specific intersections where the members of the racial and class underclass tend to be affected most.  Though not the grand next step King envisioned, it would be a step in the right direction.


To take a law of democracy example: the intersection of race and class lies at the heart of the debates concerning the propriety of voter identification laws and expanded voting.  As I have argued in earlier research, these laws affect those voters who may find it difficult to absorb the indirect economic costs of voting since these laws narrow opportunities and heighten the entry requirements for voting.  And as political scientists Matthew Mendez and Christian Grose have shown, racial bias underlies support for these laws.  Similarly, as scholars like Michelle Alexander have demonstrated, the crisis of mass incarceration has heightened the barriers of felon disenfranchisement and ultimately has excluded a large segment of African Americans and Hispanics from the franchise. These examples suggest that electoral vulnerabilities that affect minorities due to their poverty ought to be subjected to more significant judicial and legislative scrutiny. This is but one area where we can innovate concerning the problems that exist at the intersection of race and class.


Innovation of race conscious remedies in this era of civil rights enforcement will further the ultimate end of equality that was the point of the movement. By doing so through protecting the largely minority political and economic underclass, we will ultimately take one more step to promote the dignity and status of every citizen in America -- and come closer to fulfilling the vision of the long civil rights movement.

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