The Constitutional Daily tweeted a very interesting question at me this morning:
All right, I’ll put on my “ask a black dude” hat. And I can explain this.
But it’s complicated. And it requires understanding the subtleties of the positions of all parties involved. And it’s hard to really carve out a strident and principled position either way.
So, you know, this is a great conversation to have on the internet….
First of all, here’s what’s happened in Alabama a few weeks ago, from the Birmingham News:
Black members of the Alabama Senate did not support a bill… to remove Jim Crow language from the Alabama Constitution, calling the legislation a “farce.”
State senators voted 22-9 for a bill by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, that would remove Jim Crow-era language that provides for poll taxes and segregated schools from the state’s 1901 constitution…
The provisions addressed in the bill long ago were ruled invalid by the courts. But Orr said the racist language hurts the state’s image and is used by people to perpetuate stereotypes about Alabama. But the seven black senators either voted against the bill or did not vote.
Okay, there are two problems with removing this racist language.
First and foremost is the possibility that by taking this language out of the constitution, eventually people will deny that systematic segregation ever happened in this country. Truthfully, how many people out there even know that the U.S. Constitution used to count black people as 3/5ths? How many people will know that in a hundred years? How many people really knew what the Alabama Constitution said until lawmakers started trying to change it?
Look at the Holocaust, for example. That happened within the living memory of millions of people, and yet there are people who seek to deny that it ever happened. The same thing will happen with American segregation — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the only reason the “slavery deniers” aren’t as vocal as the “birthers” is because there are still enough people who think the subjugation of one race to another is a pretty good idea. As more people become horrified that the Jim Crow South was allowed to happen here, there will be more of an effort to rewrite history to make it seem like the Jim Crow South never existed. It’ll be super-annoying and I hope I’m dead by the time Sarah Michelle Bachman-Palin gets that going in full swing for the 2060 election season.
Preserving the racist constitution is one way to preserve the historical memory of the oppression.
The second problem really takes us to the limits of law. The sponsor of the bill says: “the racist language hurts the state’s image.” But I think a lot of people (black, white or other) will argue that the racist people living in the state hurt the state’s image. Alabama should probably spend more time trying to do something about its citizens who are still racists and less time changing words on a page that aren’t even enforced anymore. As one of the black legislators who opposed the measure said, “This bill to me is a farce. It’s a smokescreen. Jim Crow is still here…. We know there are disparities.”
Just because you’ve changed a constitution doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything to change the hearts and minds of the people in Alabama who still believe that blacks should be second-class citizens. Laws don’t have the power to change people’s minds.
But here’s the thing: I believe that words and laws do matter. I think having patently racist sentiments in your constitution is a big deal, even if those laws are no longer enforced.
So while I appreciate the political statement these African-American state legislators tried to make, I think they’ve missed the forest for the trees. Is it important to preserve the historical record? Of course. But it’s also important to, like, not have a racist constitution.
I mean the Confederate Flag is a goddamn historical document too. I think it should be preserved and remembered, but I don’t think it needs to be flying over the South Carolina state house or part of a UVA party. To paraphrase Indiana Jones, the Alabama Constitution belongs in a museum.
And while changing an unenforced law might not change anybody’s mind, there is still some significance to the fact that people are finally willing to change the law. They probably couldn’t have gotten this changed in 1981. That was just 30 years ago! Even if some people have less than forthright motives for changing the law, changing the law is still the right thing to do.
So yeah, I think the black legislators did the wrong thing for the right reasons, while Arthur Orr perhaps did the right thing for the wrong reasons. But I think people should do the right thing and hope the reasons sort themselves out.
Confusing enough for you? Sorry, let me stop writing so people can commence shouting about Obama, fiscal policy, affirmative action, and how hard things are for white men.
A Feel-Good Bill For White Lawmakers [Constitutional Daily]
Alabama Senate votes to remove racist language from state constitution [Birmingham News]
‘Bama Finally Bids Jim Crow Adieu [Jonathan Turley]