Wednesday, October 28, 2015
This essay is part of this blog's Online Symposium in response to Professor Randall Kennedy's essay, "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics"
The respectability politics that focus on conforming to the received culture to appeal and survive are ultimately about white supremacy. They allow for victim blaming and shaming, while ignoring the more pressing question of racial dignity.
Professor Kennedy's essay, goes to great lengths to defend both the personal and public politics of respectability. These politics serve as a mechanism to encourage members of the African American community to conform to norms of "respectability," of apparently fitting in and showing the world beyond the African American community that African Americans are entitled to respect. Kennedy argues that such respectability allows one to win allies in the broader causes that the African American community faces, as well as helps African American children to survive.
Professor Kennedy's essay is tied to his generational experience in the civil rights era and to the understandable desire for the African American community to simply survive. One one level, his argument has some persuasive force. Persons, families, and communities ought to be free to determine their own norms of expression. This freedom of self expression promotes autonomy, a core human value. Within that context of autonomy, families and communities discussion what is and is not appropriate self expression. Such autonomy is a true expression of personhood.
The public rhetoric of respectability that Professor Kennedy defends makes these personal politics open rhetorical ammunition for those on the left and right who wish to utilize them for their ends. The problem with this rhetoric is that "respectability" in the context of race politics can be too easily conflated with (and act as a mechanism to demand and enforce) political submission. Such submission accomplishes the ends of the ideologies of white supremacy and racial subordination, even if the defense is a liberal one.
The original respectability politics began when the white supremacist state demanded that black bodies ought to be bound to their caste. If one looks historically--that is, further back than arguments about sagging pants and feigned disgust over hip hop--the public racialized discussion about respectability was about black people respecting white people, black people conforming to white people's norms, white power crushing black resistance. These norms were enforced by slavery, then black codes, antimiscegenation laws, and mob rule. This form of respectability led to generations gone, survivors shamed, and the roots of mass incarceration.
This is the appropriate starting point for understanding public respectability politics, rather than conflating the myth of the triumphal civil rights movement with a "respectful" respectability politics to provide it legitimacy. This isn't to say that the tactics of the civil rights generation of the 1950s and 60s didn't work; it is to say that those tactics and their results failed to confront the ultimate problem: that white supremacy still defined the norms and the politics that even the civil rights generation encountered.
The modern-day respectability politics that Kennedy and others advocate for fails to confront the underlying premise. They buy into the myths that Black people, or any subordinated people, should and must buy into white respectability in order to be accepted. And whether the standard-setter of such politics is liberal or conservative, or whether such performance of respectability serves an end of the right or the left, such politics deny agency and subtly reassert racial supremacist thinking. And as a result, the cycle of violence and subordination continue while the victims of that cycle are shamed for it because they do not meet the standards of "respectability." It is victim-blaming at its worse, and the evidence about implicit bias and a racist "post-racial" society suggest that the bar is set too high for performances of respectability to save the day.
"Respectability" is the wrong conversation to have. Instead, we need to focus a conversation about racial civil rights in the 21st century on dignity and intrinsic worth. Dignity does not depend on one's subjective assessment of another's "respectability" for moral force. Dignity is intrinsic, and ought to be recognized as the fundamental definition of being human. The ultimate end of our norms of legal and political equality is to insure each person's dignity. It is the failure to live up to this despite our constitutional and political rhetoric of equality that is why one must say #blacklivesmatter.
Respectability politics ultimately are about blaming the victim and denying the victim agency to demand her dignity. That is the end result of a rhetoric of respectability that does not directly confront the lack of dignity for all.
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Despite spending billions of dollars on countering terrorism, we are in a more dangerous world than on September 11, 2001. Our responses to 9/11 contributed toward the creation of a political vacuum that facilitated rather than prevented terrorism. Instead of focusing on the root causes of terrorism -- poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and occupation -- we responded to violence with more violence.
Thus, it is long overdue for us to shift from a military-driven counterterrorism strategy to one focused on human development that starves the terrorists of the chaos they thrive on.
When two airplanes struck the Twin Towers and a third attacked the Pentagon, our nation declared war on Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces. Our military pursuits soon spread to removing the Saddam Hussein regime. What started as a justified effort to hold accountable the individuals who planned and executed this horrific attack quickly transformed into an indefinite war on terror.
In our government's rush to defend our freedoms, it crossed moral and legal redlines.
In our name, the U.S. tortured, kidnapped, and worked closely with Middle East dictators to send individuals to secret rendition sites to disappear in dungeons of hell. Purported regional experts made fatal mistakes in the wholesale firing of the Iraqi army, disbanding the Ba'ath party, and collectively punishing Sunnis for the war crimes of Saddam Hussein. These people are now united in their fight against us in Iraq and Syria.
As a result, the Middle East is a more unstable and dangerous place today than it was 14 years ago. Sectarian wars are ravaging through Iraq at unprecedented levels. ISIS has eclipsed Al Qaeda in its brutality. And millions of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed or displaced. All the while, the Middle East is under the firm grip of authoritarians whose own brutality creates environments fertile for terrorism.
This reality is all the more tragic when considering the significant risks taken by millions of people across the Middle East in revolting against their American-supported dictators. Through mass uprisings in 2011 and 2012, the people of the Middle East clearly demonstrated their desire for democracy, equality, and justice. They rejected both the brutality of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda or ISIS and their own governments. And yet their cries to regain their human dignity fell on deaf ears in Western capitals.
Although willing to send military aid to defend authoritarian regimes against terrorist organizations, European and American leaders balked at supporting nonviolent grassroots movements to establish more democratic political systems. Hence, we should not be surprised that terrorism rather than democracy has spread through the region.
So long as the extent of our involvement in the Middle East is through military intervention and supporting dictators, peace and democracy will not take root. And as violence begets more violence, terrorist organizations -- whether Al Qaeda, ISIS, or their progeny -- will continue to thrive.
If we are serious about making our country safer, we must recognize the humanity of those trapped between terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes that both become more potent as our military responses expand. By developing strategies that invest in education, development, and self-governance; we empower citizens of the Middle East to pursue peace.
Fourteen years later, it is time to acknowledge that for us to be safe; they too must be safe.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post here
Monday, October 26, 2015
The Rutgers Race & the Law Review is seeking submissions for its 2015-2016 Volume. The journal currently has 4 openings for Volume 17 and is accepting articles on a rolling basis until November 30, 2015. The journal publishes a broad range of articles focusing not only on race and the law, but also on topics such as immigration, culture, religion and socioeconomic legal issues. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Anti-Muslim fear and animus – or “Islamophobia” – has been prominently featured in this year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump has regularly appealed to societal derision for Islam and Muslims during his campaign for the Republican nomination. Last month, Ben Carson (in)famously proclaimed that “[He] would not advocate to put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” a position based on his belief that Islam is irreconcilable with the U.S. Constitution.
Hardly a new phenomenon, this campaign cycle illustrates the saliency of political Islamophobia in national elections. Far more than rhetoric, for Trump, Carson, Republican and even Democratic candidates, anti-Muslim hate-mongering is not only rhetorical, but intentional strategy and political priority.
While perceived as a strategic staple for national candidates, Political Islamophobia is also central to local elections and campaigns. Particularly elections and campaigns with concentrated Muslim communities, emergent Muslim populations, or host cities for recent Muslim immigrant waves.
Hamtramck, Michigan is a community that meets the criteria for all three. With a population of roughly 23,000, the intimate, urban town surrounded by the City of Detroit was once home to a concentrated Polish community. However, over the last several decades, Hamtramck has morphed into a Muslim-majority town, where Polish – and other White Americans – comprise less than 19% of the city’s population. That figure is misleading, given that the City’s sizable Arab American population – dominated by Yemeni Americans – also figures into the White demographic figures.
Roughly 25% of Hamtramck is Arab American, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. In addition, the City is home to a sizable Bangladeshi and Bosnian populations, who also overwhelmingly practice Muslims. A vibrant, blue-collar and working class town, Hamtramck’s tapestry of Arab, Bengali, Bosnian and other ethnic restaurants, shops, and Mosques signal that it is “Polish Town” no more. But rather, hub and headquarters for a diverse Muslim American population still growing in number, and in the years to come, political influence.
"Let's Get the Muslims Out" followed by “Lets Take Back Our City,” read the flyer featuring three Hamtramck candidates - Susan Dunn, Cathie Gordon and Robert Zwolak – vying for City Council seats. Dawud Walid, head of the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), brought the flier to public attention on October 21st.
Take back the city from whom? Riddled with the nativism and xenophobia saturating national campaigning, this flier appeals to the racial and religious hate of voters – largely white voters – angry with Hamtramck’s identity shift, and Muslim makeover. This "Get the Muslims Out" sentiment has been bubbling in the City for decades, and growing more intense with the gradual growth of the Muslim and minority population in Hamtramck, combined with the steady decline of the City's white residents.
Certainly, messaging in national elections influence local campaign strategy. However, proximate concerns and issues idiosyncratic to a specific community are more determinative of what local candidates say in speech, or feature on campaign literature. Anti-Muslim animus in Hamtramck has risen in proportion with the growing Muslim population, and with each passing day, the rising prominence of the Muslim community’s economic and political profile.
The nearby City of Dearborn has witnessed similar deployment of Political Islamophobia in years past, and other cities with prominent and emerging Muslim communities will surely experience the same. The rising tide of Political Islamophobia in national campaigns, combined with societal animus and hate-mongering and the expansion of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policing – injecting anti-terror policing in Muslim concentrated communities – all but guarantees it.
Therefore, while framed and featured as a national matter – Political Islamophobia is one that hits very close to home. And indeed, in the very local campaigns and elections a large number of Muslim Americans – particularly indigent and working class Muslim Americans – call home. While Trump's scorn for Muslims, and Carson's stance against Islam, are cause for alarm; the Political Islamophobia surreptitiously unfolding in the heart of Muslim American communities - where surveillance of, and violence against, Muslim Americans overwhelmingly unfolds - is just as alarming. And, cause for immediate action with these very communities.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Professor Anthony Paul Farley - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: a short essay on the so-called politics of respectability
Respectability is no way to live a life. Respectability is not even living. The so-called politics of respectability is neither respectable nor political. Animals and machines cannot be political. Respectability is a minstrel show. Organ grinder's monkey is not a self-respecting political position.
"Q: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
A: Because it was dead."
A human being is a human being is a human being. To present oneself as if one were a human being, however, is to give up the ghost. Why? Because only an animal or a machine can act as if it were human. A human being is a human being. The "as if" is a fatal concession, an always-fatal fall. The thing that remains as spirit-fled flesh is just an animal or a machine. It is the organ grinder's monkey, the politician of respectability.
The tune to which the organ grinder's monkey dances is never its own: "For they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
The organ grinder's monkey dances to its master's tune. It may be rewarded with shiny coins or a place on the Dean's List or tasty peanuts or a Ph.D. or yummy bananas or a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. None of these things matter because the monkey is dead. The monkey fell out of the tree. Tree of Life? Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Willow? Redbud? It does not matter. The monkey fell, the monkey has fallen, the monkey is falling, it never ends; it is always already over at the beginning: The monkey fell because it was dead.
Verisimilitude: the appearance of being real or true. The organ grinder's monkey makes respectability noises, "I am black, but O! my soul is white," and "Am I not a man and a brother?"
Verisimilitude is the key, the beat, the blood, and the harmony: "I am black, but O! my soul is white," "I am black, but O! my soul is white," "I am black, but O! my soul is white," over and over, like crimson and clover, "Am I not a man and a brother?" "Am I not a man and a brother?" "Am I not a man and a brother?" like an alarm clock, but the monkey is not sleeping, it is dead.
To argue for one's humanity is to concede the argument before it begins. To make one's life into such an argument is to end one's life altogether. In fact, the individual pawn's apparent self-sacrifice is really just a genocidal attack on its own group.
One summer, perhaps I was eight or nine, my mother and I spent weeks at the library at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. We were in the library from morning to evening, and, for reasons having to do with her research, we were half a continent away from home and the rest of the family. That, at any rate, is my how I remember it. I recall one day very clearly. It was the day a band of feral children came to the library. They were loud, wild, stupid, and probably poor. They did not love libraries. They did not know about libraries.
We love libraries. I have always loved libraries. As a child, the library appeared before my eyes as an endless and impossibly beautiful forest. My parents were both university professors. My grandparents, all four, were schoolteachers. A great-grandfather was also a teacher. My aunts and uncles and cousins have degrees too numerous to count. After the ground zero of slavery, libraries became our home. We also love athletics, so libraries and track meets were, for us, home.
Back to the "fluttered folk and wild,” the feral children who entered the library. I wanted nothing to do with them. "Half-devil and half-child," they were about my age. They spent about an hour, maybe two, running and shouting and pushing and shoving each other around. They did not love the library; they seemed to love jumping around and making noise. They were, to my amazement and horror, utterly uninterested in books, save as objects to toss around. As it happens, they were black. Trapped in slavery.
At some point, I walked past an elevator in the library and an old woman, white, called to me, holding the door, "Young man," or some such adult-to-child 1970s form of address, "I think that you are about to miss your bus. Your group just left the library." I said, "I am NOT with them." What had I to do with the wildlings? "I am not with THEM." My white interlocutor responded, "You can say that again!" I denied the wildlings a third time, only in my mind ("I am not with them").
We were both disgusted. But I do not think that we were disgusted by the same thing. I told my mother about the conversation. She told me to "never feel happy" about that kind of conversation. My mother and I were already in agreement.
"Why take children to a library without first teaching them how to use and appreciate a library?" I recall thinking. "White racism" is what I recall concluding, even before I spoke with my mother. “What a clever way to get them to exclude themselves.”
Reading at a desk for hours is an acquired skill, a physical skill. It is not unlike athletics. You have to be coached. Your imagination has to be coaxed. This is done routinely for the children of the bourgeoisie.
What white racists might have seen or thought about the wild black children, or me, really does not matter at all, and it did not matter to me. One would have to be a monkey to actually have feelings about what racists' think. In fact, that may be how it starts. It starts when one begins to care, as a matter of the heart, as a matter of inner feelings, what racists think: "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead." No one should make his or her life a performance piece for or against white racism. That is not respectable, it is not political, it is not even living.
The feral black kids were performing for white racists. They were on display, as in a zoo. In fact, taking them to the library --untrained as they were in its uses, uninformed as they were of its wonders-- was a sadistic way of getting them to cooperate in their own alienation. If I had been happy to be seen as not with them, then that happiness would have put me on display in the same zoo: Look, the mutation that proves the general rule.
The wild children, who happened to be black, had been cast out of the garden. But we all had been cast out. "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead." No counter-performance of mine was going to successfully "bid the sickness cease." And why would I give up one second of my own life to perform for racists?
Coins and peanuts and bananas, like Ph.D.s and high office, are not victories. The powers and principalities that were and remain happy to hear black children howl in the library were and remain happy to have the rest of us not exist, or exist only to prove the general rule, like the organ grinder's monkey. The politics of respectability cannot win. The proponents of respectability do not want to win; they do not want us to win. They only want to be wanted, like the organ grinder’s monkey.
In Madison, Wisconsin, in 2013, over four decades after my afternoon of respectability, the police made over 1,000 arrests of black children between the ages of 10 and 17. There are only 3,247 black children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Madison, Wisconsin. The human zoo has expanded beyond the school and the library. The plantation is nearly complete.
Better must come.
There is nothing wrong with anyone. No one is better. No one is worse. No one is in a position to judge. There is nothing to judge. The monkey fell out of the tree. The monkey fell because it was dead. The dead have nothing to offer. It is different with the living.
something else from 1970:
--Anthony Paul Farley, Albany School of Law
Monday, October 19, 2015
Professor Reginald Mombrun - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
This is the dilemma: we tell our children to behave, do well in school, and conform if they want to move up in society but this strategy does not work on a macro level. I am not willing to completely cast away with the respectability argument but I think we should be respectable in our private lives but never tire of pointing the finger at the structural racism.
Bill Cosby (when he was respectable) applied the respectability concept to Blacks and concluded (or made it very easy) to conclude that Blacks were their own worst enemies, and not structural racism. Ben Carson said that he thought that the impact of his race on his career was neutral. I recently read an article arguing about the need of young Black girls to emulate Serena Williams. What about the average Black lacking the talent of Carson and Williams?
Respectability does not work, cannot work, will not work as a policy for uplifting Black people. I was in Brazil for the World cup last year and the Blacks in Brazil are some of the most docile and “respectable” I have seen in a generation. Their reward? They are being screwed royally and are kept at the very bottom of society. It just makes no sense that folks that prey on you and have been doing so for centuries will now invite you to the table because you are now wearing a suit or pantsuit.
--Reginald Mombrun, North Carolina Central University School of Law
Friday, October 16, 2015
Professor Stacy Hawkins - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
Professor Randall Kennedy’s provocative essay on respectability politics has elicited a range of impassioned responses. But there are at least two points, which have gone unacknowledged, that are worth raising here. The first is the difference between having leaders who command broad respect and respectability politics. This is an important distinction. The former may be necessary, even if the latter is highly contested. The second point is the shift in context that has caused the respectability politics of the Civil Rights Movement, which most would concede wrought great social change, to become a hindrance rather than an aid to continued racial justice and equality. This makes respectability politics not wrong per se, but an idea out of time.
In the first instance, Professor Kennedy notes that one aspect of respectability politics involves leaders taking care to present a positive image of themselves to command respect from opponents and also to avoid alienating potential allies. This is a point well-taken. The Black Lives Matter Movement has had tremendous success in bringing sustained attention to the problem of police violence against blacks in this country. This movement, and their efforts, are sorely needed and ought to be encouraged.
However, the leadership of the Black Lives Matter Movement has rightly come under criticism recently. For instance, the decision by two Black Lives Matter leaders to disrupt the campaign event of democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Seattle this past August has been condemned by some as reflecting poorly on the movement and its leadership. One news story described the leaders “demanding the microphone” from Sanders, “shouting ‘We are angry!’” at the crowd, and even reported a “struggle” that ensued between the leaders and event organizers as they tried to regain control of the microphone and allow Sanders to resume his address. Ultimately, Sanders had to leave the venue without addressing the assembled crowd of thousands, an outcome he described as “disappoint[ing]” and “unfortunate.” In this regard, it is true that leaders must be above reproach; their ability to command the respect of opponents and, more importantly, the support of allies is necessary to the sustained success of any protest movement. This is no less true today than it was during the civil rights era, and the Black Lives Matter Movement ought to take note.
However, respectable leaders and respectability politics are not one in the same. In addition to calling for respectable leaders, Professor Kennedy notes that respectability politics also advocates that blacks generally take care “to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on [other] blacks [or] reinforce negative racial stereotypes.” This is where respectability politics gets it wrong. The role of a leader is to give voice to the voiceless and seize power for the powerless. Thus, even if leaders must demonstrate themselves to be above reproach, they must ensure that their claims are on behalf of not only themselves (and others like them), but also those who, though differently situated, are no less deserving of dignity and equality.
The second issue is the continuing utility of respectability politics. It is probably true, as Professor Kennedy recounts, that the respectability politics employed by civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s (and abolitionists before them) were both necessary and effective for that time. But much has changed. The critical question is does respectability politics remain the right approach now? In answering this question, I am reminded of the haunting words of Dr. King spoken in 1967 during a Vietnam War speech. Although Dr. King had often included the phrase “how long, not long” in his speeches, by 1967 Dr. King seemed a decidedly more impatient and less hopeful man. In that moment, he felt compelled instead to say, “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now . . . We must find new ways to speak for peace [ ] and justice. . .” Perhaps it is time to acknowledge, as Dr. King remarked during his last days, that respectability politics has wrought all it will and it is time to find “new ways to speak for peace [ ] and justice.”
--Stacy Hawkins, Rutgers University- Camden School of Law
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Professor Audrey McFarlane - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
We are Them: The Lie of Respectability Politics
The central question of Randall Kennedy’s Respectability Politics article, "Is it wrong for black parents to deliver to their children the sort of talks that my parents gave to [him]?" is easy to answer: of course not.
But is the question a fair one? Who would criticize advice that he received from his parents during a time and place when he was a pioneer, crossing into places where an elaborate rationale of black inferiority had previously denied entry? Who could criticize advice that any of the Black readers of Harpers or Black strivers in general likely received in some form?
The question however is whether this question is the important one? Is it the question for these times? And I say no. It obscures the real issue whether Michael Brown the cigar stealer who bullied a shopkeeper was the appropriate face for the Black Lives Matter movement. The same question could be asked about Freddy Gray the petty drug dealer. Is he the right face for a movement focused on securing reform of police tactics and overall reform of the carceral state? My answer is yes they, and others like them, are because we are at a state of recognition that respectability politics is a lie. A lie that the society hands to us, falsely promising that if you follow the rules and present as middle class and educated, or even better, upper middle class, and highly educated, then the American Dream is unlocked for you. That means you must do and be something that other non-Black Americans don't have to in order to have the full rights of citizenship: be more than human to secure life, liberty and property.
Black Lives Matter rightly questions, why do we have to be superhuman? Because our humanity is obscured by Black-ness? Because we are the Other and have to accept that the society cannot accept us unless we bridge the divide and help them see themselves in us? By the very nature of that quest, we put ourselves in the position of accepting that our rights are conditional; that we accept that our humanity demands a performance. And in it all, who are we really? Most important, what of the people who fail in that quest to be better than? What if they are average? Flawed? Made mistakes? Even bad?
I think the next stage of the civil rights struggle is openly seeking to secure rights for the flawed, the imperfect, the human. If you don't fight for the Freddie Grays or the Michael Browns, then you've lost because they are the measure of the rights that we all will have truly attained not by the performance of middle class cultural patterns but by being human.
Where did I arrive at this conclusion? In part, from the abominable way President Obama has been treated over the past eight years by people who have essentially declared he has no office, power or station they are bound to respect. He did everything that was required for respectability; in fact he exceeded the loftiest standard by every measure and yet he has been treated as a base usurper at every turn. So it's ultimately a lie that respectability is the path to freedom for black people.
Concededly, following the rules is a step - to be able to perform culturally appropriately to be employed and not imprisoned. But that's not the same as seeing respectability as the key. Because to do so is to miss seeing that black subjugation comes not from black behavior but from the very existence of racially identifiable people. And if the average, flawed, ordinary Black person is not safe from police brutality then neither are you nor I.
I hope for a day also when black people cease to be collectively publicly lectured and chastised for their supposed collective behavior. I know of no other group subject to such public denigration and disciplining. That's not leadership. Just a gift of punitive delight to everyone who is watching thinking to themselves, “oh, I know he's not talking about me. He's talking about them.” We are them.
--Audrey McFarlane, University of Baltimore School of Law
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Contradiction of Respectability Politics
Professor Randall Kennedy’s provocative essay “Lifting as We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics” exposes a fundamental contradiction faced by subordinated groups across the world: they are held individually responsible to overcome systemic inequities and yet collectively guilty for wrongdoings of individuals belonging to their group.
This irreconcilable contradiction is no accident. Quite the contrary, by design, powerful groups create rules that make it impossible for subordinated groups to escape from the bottom rungs of the power hierarchy. Kennedy’s optimistic essay fails to tackle how to overcome this contradiction as a prerequisite for making respectability politics an effective “public relations tactic” capable of making transformational reforms.
In highlighting that “any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived,” Kennedy holds steadfast to the belief that individual action, dress, and speech can overcome group oppression. The flaw in Kennedy’s reasoning, however, lies in the assumption that individual African American’s behavior can shape societal perceptions that in turn affect African Americans’ collective material interests. I proffer this assumption is false.
A common feature of repressive systems worldwide is the imposition of negative stereotypes on all members of subordinated groups irrespective of their individual behavior and beliefs. Negative media depictions and an over-emphasis on the wrongdoings of individuals within the subordinate group shape the citizenry’s perceptions of that group and in turn rationalize inequities. In stark contrast, bad actors within powerful groups are excised as an exception to the positive perceptions presumed of all members.
Hence, Kennedy’s position that “taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies” ignores the contradiction facing blacks in America: a predominantly white power structure that imposes collective guilt irrespective of an individual black’s “respectable” behavior, dress, and talk.
Furthermore, much of the individual wrongdoing used to perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks is a product of systemic economic, social, and political deprivation that requires structural, not individual, fixes. Poor inner city neighborhoods are virtual prisons infested with violence and unemployment that funnel the predominantly non-white inhabitants into physical prisons. For each individual who manages to overcome significant odds to escape from these virtual prisons, there are thousands of others whose circumstances of birth determine the circumstances of their life.
Thus, rather than adopt tactics that emphasize individual respectability, resources are better spent exposing the hypocrisy of a system designed to keep blacks collectively subordinated regardless of their individual efforts. Indeed, respectability politics has failed to end the historic over-representation of blacks among America’s poor, incarcerated, and unemployed.
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s essay highlights an important point: individual responsibility is a myth for racial minorities in America. Individual (bad) behavior continues to be imputed on the collective to perpetuate negative stereotypes used to rationalize inequality.
Thus, all those who follow the advice to “speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners” are likely to be disregarded as anomalies to the predominant “bad Negro” stereotype perpetually reinstated with each individual crime committed by an African American.
In the end, I fear that no amount of respectability politics can free blacks from the clenches of a system designed to collectively subordinate them.
-- Sahar Aziz, Texas A&M University School of Law
Monday, October 12, 2015
Professor Vinay Harpalani - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
A Respectful (But Not Respectable) Dissent Against Black Respectability Politics
In an article entitled “Lifting as We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics”—which appears in the October 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine—Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School defends what he terms “a sensible black respectability politics.” The term “respectability politics” typically refers to efforts by groups who are marginalized (Kennedy focuses on African Americans) to show that their values and behaviors are in concert with the mainstream (White Americans here), and that they are not threatening to the prevailing norms of mainstream society. Professor Kennedy acknowledges many problems with respectability politics and admirably tries to come to terms with these. Nevertheless, he emphasizes the positive dimensions of respectability, and he concludes that “[a]t no point has a progressive black respectability politics made more sense” than today.
Although I respect Professor Kennedy’s intent and efforts here, I find several shortcomings in his analysis. First, Professor Kennedy does not adequately distinguish between the consequences of private dialogue on respectability—the conversations that Black parents and elders have with children in their homes and other private spaces—and public respectability discourse perpetuated by prominent figures—most notably President Barack Obama. While the former may well be appropriate, the latter is harmful because it serves widely to marginalize African Americans, by reinforcing negative racial stereotypes in the public sphere.
Second, Professor Kennedy misses the nuances of President Obama’s use of public discourse on respectability. I argue that President Obama himself does not reflect the negative stereotypes of African Americans held by many White people. His upbringing was very different from these stereotypic images, and his public persona is counterstereotypic in every sense—a hallmark of Black exceptionalism. Although Obama has faced and continues to face different forms of racism, this does not mean his experiences growing up in Hawaii equate with those of African American youth living in impoverished, highly segregated communities on the mainland. It is admirable that President Obama can identify with the struggles faced by African American communities and lend assistance to activist efforts—as for example, when he humanized Trayvon Martin by noting that his son would look like Trayvon. However, in the context of Black respectability, Obama’s comments serve to chastise African Americans who have faced different challenges than him.
Third, Professor Kennedy does not acknowledge the internal dissonance that successful African Americans already feel and that respectability notions tend to exacerbate. African Americans who are successful often have to decouple their identities from the negative stereotypes of Black communities that pervade White America. By doing so, they also feel more distant from these communities. Respectability plays a role in this process, which creates an internal dissonance among many upwardly mobile African Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote about this dilemma for African Americans in his 1903 classic, Souls of Black Folk, where he described the “peculiar sensation” of “double-consciousness”—that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”—and feeling one’s “two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body[.]” Professor Kennedy’s discussion of Black respectability is incomplete without addressing this dilemma.
Because respectability involves creating divisions within Black communities, I question whether it really means “lifting as we climbing” or if it is “climbing on the backs of others.” As such, I respectfully (but not respectably) dissent from Professor Kennedy’s thesis.
-- Vinay Harpalani, Savannah Law School
A longer version of this commentary appeared in Black Commentator - Issue 623 (October 01, 2015)
Friday, October 9, 2015
In her classic song "Respect," Aretha Franklin asks the listener to "find out what it means to me." According to the dictionary, respect is "a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements." This matches the "definition" of respect most of us learned as children: respect is something that is earned, not given.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with respectability politics. People of color do not need to earn anything. We deserve to be respected simply because we are breathing human beings on this planet. There should be no other requirement to obtain respect in this society.
To be certain, Professor Kennedy is correct that respectability politics played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement. However, it is worth noting that nearly all of the examples of successful uses of respectability he cites are from that era. Professor Kennedy ignores the fact that when the song changed from "Respect" to "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," the entire mentality of the African-American community changed. No longer were Black folks willing to prove to the majority that they deserved respect. Professor Kennedy implicitly acknowledges this when he notes that an entire movement was built in Ferguson around the death of Michael Brown. While he's right that such a thing would have been unthinkable in the Civil Rights Era, the fact that #BlackLivesMatter exists is a testament to the fact that Black folks no longer require the victim to be pristine to demand justice on his (or her) behalf.
Because Professor Kennedy overlooks the Black community's rejection of respectability politics, he misses the key point. It is the WHITE community that continues to insist that people of color demonstrate their worthiness. This demand is not explicit, but it can be seen in the patterns of racial polling. There is a perception among many whites that people of color are dangerous. In many, many surveys, it has been shown that a significant number of whites continue to believe that African Americans (as well as other racial groups) are less hardworking than whites, less trustworthy than whites, or possess any number of bad qualities. Because of this bias, whites and Blacks view events differently. Black victims of white violence are held to impossible standards. Let's look at some recent incidents.
First, when it comes to police brutality, any crime is a dangerous one. While the African American community was outraged when police officers were not indicted for the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, most whites agreed with the decisions. Many whites seized upon Brown and Garner's petty crimes to justify their opinions. Shoplifting and selling loose cigarettes are not capital crimes, but in the minds of many whites, those minimal actions justified their belief that the killings were necessary. A respectable, law-abiding person wouldn't have been attracted the attention of the police, right? Perhaps if Brown and Garner had been praying in church when killed, their deaths would have generated more sympathy from whites. But should the standard for a basic human right - the right not to be killed by a police officer for a petty crime - be set so high?
Second, even when the police aren't involved, Black innocence is attacked. When Trayvon Martin was killed, many whites complained that the image of Trayvon portrayed in the media was not the "real" Trayvon. An entire campaign arose to discredit him, mentioning details as minute as the fact that he used curse words in social media posts. When the verdict was delivered, a majority of whites polled agreed with the jury's decision. It appears that there's a confirmation bias problem - any piece of information that allows whites to confirm the belief that a Black person is bad will be used for that purpose. Trayvon Martin could have been wearing a three-piece suit and whistling Vivaldi, but those markers of respectability would have been negated upon learning of his "true" nature.
Whose responsibility is it to change the way these whites think? Those that engage in respectability politics - even the most mild form that Professor Kennedy endorses - are basically saying that it is the responsibility of African Americans to make whites change their minds. But it it contradicts every concept of human dignity to think that one group of people should have to prove their worth to another before being deemed worthy of the ability to go about their daily lives free from both public and private violence. African Americans must respect ourselves enough to reject any claims to the contrary.
Professor Craig Jackson - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
Respectability, Malcolm X, and Dad
All of the conversation about respectability politics is nothing new particularly in light of a recent article by Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy. It used to be called “being bourgie”. And some of the same compelling and lame arguments on both sides of the debate were made back then. It got me thinking about an episode from my teen years and a lesson I learned from my dad. In response to a request for feedback that Randall sent to the AALS minority law professor’s list serv I wrote the following recollection.
During Black History Week (as it was called in 1970), several of us in my sophomore civics class were asked to deliver a Black History statement every afternoon on the public address system. My school was a mostly black high school in the year of the Nixon Justice Department’s desegregation push nationwide, and a few white students, on their way out to the suburbs of Beaumont Texas, were in attendance temporarily, and our faculty was majority white because, well, better to have an inexperienced young white teacher than a seasoned experienced black teacher to lift us out of whatever we were supposed to be lifted out of.
On the day I was supposed to give a brief biography of a black historical figure, I had cleared my bio of Malcolm X. As I walked to the main office where the PA system was located, I pulled out my alternative bio that I had planned to give secretly knowing that it would not be cleared. It was a biography of Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton. I got to the office, pulled out my alternative bio, and delivered, in my best black nationalist cadence (a tradition kept alive today by Brother Michael Eric Dyson) and announced that “today’s Black History Week biography will focus on the life of Brother Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party!” I could hear the cheers from the adjoining class rooms in the main office. Buoyed, I delivered my bio, and returned to my classroom satisfied that I had delivered one for the revolution. I got fives (no high fives in those days) from my classmates, and a staredown from my civics teacher. Right when she was about to admonish my brazen statement of solidarity with the brothers and sisters in Oakland, the school secretary came over the PA system. “Will Craig Jackson please come to the principal’s office immediately.” The class erupted in unison “ooh Craig, you in trouble.” I got up gingerly and walked toward the office.
It should perhaps be noted at this point of my story that the principal was my father.
Mrs. Collins, the school secretary asked me to take a seat, and I did. I waited to see the principal for two hours, watching him walk out of his office to hand Mrs. Collins papers and instructions periodically. Each time he looked at me and mouthed something like “we are going to talk.” Dread hung over me.
After the tortuous two hours, I was escorted to the principal’s office. Dad did not get mad often, he was a gregarious guy who loved teaching and educating black kids. It was his calling. But when I entered the room his first words were “you little red Negro, what in the world were you thinking?”
A note of explanation is appropriate. Little red Negro was a term that he used both in exasperation with me and endearment from the time I was a toddler. Dad was dark skinned and I am light skinned and it was one of those expressions not uncommon during that time that people just used. The last time I saw him a month before he died in 1991, I was 35 and teaching law, and he said, “come here you little red Negro, gimme a hug boy.” I would do anything to hear him say that today.
Now back to the story.
For a good 30 minutes he harangued me about admiring “those thug Black Panthers. They are criminals, not worth anything and” I interrupted, “they have a breakfast program Dad”
“We have a breakfast program boy!” And it went on and on for another 30 minutes like that. At the end of the tirade, he said, “I learned that you were supposed to do the bio of Malcolm X. What happened to that?”
“Well,” I said, “He did not represent black militancy and revolution. The Panthers are revolutionary and we need a revolution in this country.” I was 15.
He asked if I had read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I had not. “He wasn’t revolutionary? You need to read that book. He was more revolutionary than those damn Panthers. Why do you think he wasn’t revolutionary?”
“Dad, he dressed in suits, wore a bow tie, kept his hair short.”
“Yeah, I mean yessir.”
“He stood for more revolution than your guys, and he was well dressed and articulate and he even spoke at the Oxford Union.”
I did not know what to say. None of it meant anything to me because the Panthers wore leather jackets, big Afros, and spoke about revolution. To my know it all mind at 15 Malcolm was just another suit wearing old man from my father’s generation. But Dad was getting to me, and I started to stifle a few tears, and then just broke out into uncontrolled crying. Football playing inner city black male, as I thought of myself at the time, and I cannot stand up to this guy.
Dad felt sorry for me and said, “You need a job, lets go down to get your social security number.” It was a trip that we had planned for that day. I said ok, and we went and took care of the business, me trying to hold back my frustrations and tears. He let up on me, we went and got some burgers afterwards, talked about sports, and we became friends again for the next 21 years.
Now, for the question of the day. Was my father a practitioner of respectability politics? He was a fan of perhaps the most revolutionary thinker of the times, and yes, he liked the suits and short hair and the calm demeanor and the articulate way Malcolm expressed his disgust at the American system. It was a disgust my father shared as a veteran of World War II in a segregated army who escaped a lynch party in East Texas after the war comprised of Klansmen who identified him as “one of them smart assed niggers from the war.” They were right. Just back from Europe where he spent a year killing Germans, he had jumped to the defense of a black woman who was being slapped by a white man and it took a sheriff’s intervention to save his life. Today, at 60, I believe that my critiques of his fascination with decent behavior and presenting oneself well, were superficial meanderings of a kid, which they were. And though I do believe that he was wrong about the Panthers, their statement was needed at the time and the leaders certainly were articulate spokesmen for the restlessness of black inner city youth of the times. But he did not believe in accommodation. He cursed out the white school district superintendent a few years later for disrespecting him, and he did that in a suit. And, though I never heard him curse, I am sure that he was articulate in his use of curse words.
-- Professor Craig Jackson, Texas Southern Thurgood Marshall School of Law
Thursday, October 8, 2015
Professor Tanya Washington - Response to "A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics" Online Symposium
In the respectability argument I hear echoes of Bill Cosby's criticism of black youth who wear saggy pants and speak Ebonics. He conveniently forgot the language used by the characters in his hit television show "Fat Albert and the Gang," which I thoroughly enjoyed as a child. I believe there is a dialect that is appropriate for the courtroom and for some sectors in the market place, in that it may have greater utility, but it doesn't make any form of communication more inherently valuable or respectable than any other. According to many British folks the whole of the American version of English is slang.
In my opinion, there is a difference between appropriateness and respectability. I tell my 13 year old son that he should dress appropriately (e.g., not wear the same thing to a school dance that he would wear to a basketball game). Behaving in a respectable manner is a racialized norm, and though one could argue that appropriateness has a normative aspect as well, it seems more cued to context than to some quantum of inherent value. What is respectable in this society seems to be determined by how closely one approximates white, Christian, straight, middle class, maleness. This discussion and Professor Audrey McFarlane perspective (with which I wholeheartedly agree) reminds me of several lines from Sister Nina Simone's classic Mississippi Goddam:
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie
I strive to be appropriate in the spaces I occupy and behave strategically to achieve desired ends. But knowing (as Professor McFarlane and Sister Simone note) that no matter what I do I am deemed inherently "not respectable" is liberating and frees me to define myself in terms that reflect the values and experiences of my ancestors, rather than those of the oppressor.
-- Professor Tanya Washington, Georgia State College of Law
Dear Race and the Law Profs Blog Readers,
We are pleased to announce an online symposium on Professor Randall Kennedy's provocative and thoughtful essay in Harper's Magazine entitled "Lifting as We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics."
For the next 10 days, we will post responses to Professor Kennedy's essay submitted by law professors from around the country, including the editors of the Race and the Law blog.
We also encourage our readers to submit your responses (less than 500 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org, or in the alternative, post your thoughts in the comments section of the blog.
We look forward to a lively and engaging debate!
Race and the Law Profs Blog Editors
Recently, Professor Sahar Aziz posted on this blog about how the concept of diversity as applied by institutions fails to account for inter-group difference. I want to continue this dialogue about the failings of the diversity idea by discussing how diversity celebrations, which we often see on college campuses, workplaces, and in broader society, may actually co-opt the conception of equality that underlies the diversity rationale.
Diversity as a concept is necessarily broad (because it ideally reflects the range of community that is "We the People") but it can be manipulated in ways that make "diversity" appear meaningless or worse yet defeat the goal it seeks to achieve. As Professor Aziz points out in her post, this happens in part because the institutional diversity agenda has become focused on celebration.
Celebrations recognize and validate the different racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and other groups are within a particular space. Indeed, validation and celebration are worthwhile as a part of a larger end. We have "Diversity Week" at many major universities. We have a long tradition of celebrating the history of a group to highlight the accomplishments of members of that group. Institutions had to pick a day/week/month to intentionally name those who are not being sufficiently recognized because otherwise such recognition would not happen. Such diversity celebration had to happen to force the majority to tolerate the minority.
Yet, in the post-civil rights 21st century, this concept has failed to grow beyond this diversity-as-tolerance model. As diversity has failed to diversify, failed to recognize and counter new forms and ends of discrimination, and failed to affirmatively foster the politics of equality, colorblindness and post-racialism have co-opted the underlying ideal of racial equality behind celebrating diversity.
We practice diversity celebrations in ways that signal that diversity is limited to celebration and bounded to a particular time. These celebrations often gloss over conversations of institutional injustice and the celebrations themselves, though important, seem to amount to the minimum recognition historically marginalized groups need to feel somewhat satisfied.
This institutional approach, despite the intent of those who sponsor it and without engagement in the classrooms, offices, and the broader society, allows those who oppose diversity to treat diversity initiatives as a zero-sum game. Diversity is argued to be exceptional. The implication is that homogeneity--the homogeneity established by the traditions of racial subjugation and stay-in-your-place politics--is preferred. And conversations, policies, and doctrines that advocate for heightened inclusion of racial diversity thus become disfavored, while at the same time, diversity celebrations become a selling point for these same institutions, and, as Professor Nancy Leong has pointed out, making their presence (and the minorities involved) a commodity.
In this way of thinking, diversity that is perceived as encroaching on the privileges the majority believes it is entitled is equated to oppression of the majority. (I explain here how the Supreme Court has participated in this process.) The history of marginalized groups thus becomes merely tolerated and society focuses its consciousness to what conforms to the received norm of homogeneity.
This approach to diversity fails to confront the boundaries and foster a dialogue that is about the everyday and everyone. It also fails to confront the project of delimiting race from our consciousness, despite the necessity of the diversity rationale claimed in cases like Grutter v. Bollinger.
In this sense, diversity-as-tolerance fails to be inclusive and distracts us from the end of equality. The way we celebrate diversity instead fuels the ideologies of colorblindness and post-racialism. This suggests that the diversity project needs to be reimagined to focus on the ends of being present to the reality of diversity, the reality of oppression, and the goal of equality. In a future post, I will comment on what such a movement may require.
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Like most Race Crits, I have long been focused on the severe racial inequities in the criminal justice system. We often think of the many systems of cultural perception and values that reinforce the status quo in this area as an example of the permanence of racism. Attention to this issue has greatly increased in recent years, especially since the publication of Michelle Alexander's call to action, "The New Jim Crow." But Khaled's post on the prison debaters who defeated Harvard reminded of something I've been noticing.
Some sympathy for those long dismissed as "convicted criminals" has started to emerge. As Khaled noted, the prison debate story got widespread distribution through social media, at least partly in approval of the prisoners (and partly in contempt of Harvard.) In the Supreme Court, advocates like Bryan Stevenson have been successful in slowly, finally, giving the Constitutional injunction against "cruel and unusual punishment" some real meaning. In Ohio, there have been small legal changes quietly enacted to remove barriers to housing and employment for persons with criminal convictions on their records. And in the U.S. Senate, a bipartisan sentencing reform bill of real significance appears likely to pass. Such unlikely partners as Charles Grassley, Corey Booker, and Rand Paul are on board.
Those self-reinforcing systems and stereotypes are still in place, but it seems worth noting: there's something happening here.
Monday, October 5, 2015
The prisoner is perhaps the most maligned figure in American society. The expansion of the prison industrial complex, and its acute emphasis on punishment instead of rehabilitation, deepens the discursive view that prisoners are inherently dangerous and irredeemable members of society.
Dubbed the “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, proliferating incarceration rates of Black men, and men and women of color at large, American prisons have devolved into punitive “systems of social control.” Law Scholar SpearIt calls the modern American penitentiary, “a locus of extreme violence, repression, and control,” where the mission of rehabilitating inmates is rapidly eroding.
Enter the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) – a largely private-funded college program for males imprisoned in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. BPI currently has 300 men and women students enrolled in its program, which boasts a nationally heralded debate team. "By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice," holds the Program Mission.
On Friday, September 18th, BPI received national attention when three of its students – Carl Snyder, DyJuan Tatro and Carlos Polanco – defeated the Harvard Debate Team. The victory earned BPI, and the prison debate team, coverage in the Washington Post, and made them the focus of social media discussions and twitter trends nationwide.
However, the nod over Harvard was not the BPI Debate Team’s first high-profile victory. They defeated West Point, and outdebated “a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont.” Without Internet access and immediate access to books, the debating trio of Snyder, Tatro, and Polanco evolved into a formidable debate team. Their achievement signaled the success of the BPI college program, established in 2001 to “give liberal-arts education to talented, motivated inmates;” and more broadly, the transformative yet diminishing commitment of prisoner rehabilitation.
Research indicates how prison rehabilitative paradigms, instead of punitive measures, lessen former inmate recidivism. BPI duly illustrates that finding. Leslie Brody writes that, “The Bard program’s leaders say that out of more than 300 alumni who earned degrees while in custody, less than 2% returned to prison within three years, the standard time frame for measuring recidivism.”
Equipped with formal educations and degrees, and the confidence and soft skills cultivated inside and outside of the BPI classroom, the Program prepares its students for life beyond bars. Punitive prison measures, conversely, only harden inmates and embed feelings of nihilism, which result in escalating recidivism and return-to-prison rates by former inmates. Within three years, roughly 67% percent of released prisoners were rearrested. After five years, the clip rose to approximately 77%.
Many foresee recidivism rates increasing with prison industrial complex becoming more privatized. Particularly with the financial incentives to hand down longer sentences, incarcerate and re-incarcerate inmates driving penitentiary bottom lines. As trends indicate, prisons in America are devolving into businesses where more punishment equals more profit.
While an aberration from this bleak trend, the BPI Debate Team’s victory over the Harvard College Debating Union offers a glimpse into what can be if dollars were pumped into rehabilitating, instead of punishing, our inmate population. Turning the structural tide toward rehabilitation and away from punishment, however, would be a victory for inmates everywhere.
Friday, October 2, 2015
I commented previously on how the right to vote remains in what President Obama called "the long shadow of racism." Mr. Obama juxtaposed the modern challenges of voting with concerns about the larger problems of structural racism that plague poor African Americans. It is a concern about the precarity of those who may suffer harm to their rights because of structural shifts. To be concerned about this is to be concerned with how
structural inequality pervades the American political structure at its most basic levels. It is also to imply that we cannot see voting in isolation from police violence, economic oppression, or racial domination. [T]he juxtaposition of race, democracy, mass incarceration, and poverty is to imply the need for a dialogue about structural racism that will ultimately spur legal reform.
Recent events in Alabama underscore this concern. On Wednesday, al.com reported that the State of Alabama would be closing 31 driver part-time driver's license offices located in rural areas of the state. This was done to close an $11 million cut in the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's budget. This is part of a larger set of cutbacks in governmental services due to budget constraints.
John Merrill, Alabama's Secretary of State (and Chief Elections Official) said the closings would not affect access to identification cards necessary for voting, under Alabama's voter ID law. Mr. Merrill stated that each county's Board of Registrars could issue appropriate identification.
Despite Mr. Merrill's assurances, commentators and civil rights activists nonetheless complained about the risk to the voting rights for rural black Alabama residents. Susan Watson, Executive Director of the Alabama ACLU said that "people are right to be worried" about the closures. "It's going to have a huge impact on the ability of people to get a state-issued I.D." Political commentator Kyle Whitmire argued that the closings would necessarily narrow access to the necessary credential of a driver's license (or other ID), and thus created the "certainty" of a "civil rights lawsuit."
Depending on which counties you count as being in Alabama's Black Belt, either twelve or fifteen Black Belt counties soon won't have a place to get a driver's license. Counties where some of the state's poorest live. Counties that are majority African-American. Combine that with the federally mandated Star ID taking effect next year, and we're looking at a nightmare. Or a trial lawyer's dream.
If the closures are part of a coordinated strategy to disenfranchise, it would represent voter suppression of the worse kind (though the evidence of this would be highly unlikely to find). A suit under the Voting Rights Act would be apt.
But even if the State of Alabama is taken at its word, and the cuts in providing drivers licenses is not an effort to disenfranchise African Americans in Alabama, the structures of historic, racially disparate poverty have coincided with the need for austerity that the state claims, putting at risk the right to vote for those poor black Alabamians who are at the intersection of race and class. Mr. Whitmire's disparate impact argument could be pursued under Section 2, which would force Alabama--if it is found liable--to rethink this approach to solving its austerity problem. Yet, without Section 5 preclearance, the alleged harm done would continue until a judicial finding.
This serves as a reminder that Voting Rights Act as it currently stands is under-equipped to address this kind of structural voter discrimination. Moreover, whether this is intentional or incidental, the situation illustrates how the right to vote is precarious for those who suffer subordination based on race and class.