Alabama Quietly Ends Race Certification Policy

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, more than a hundred years ago, described his generation as “chained” to the duty of eliminating race from American politics. Five generations later, we sometimes appear chained to that same intractable task. Yet, if one looks beyond today’s political rhetoric, that colors and confuses most issues with race, there is a clear and widening path leading out of our tremulous racial history toward a more tolerant and harmonious society.

This path reached Alabama in 1991. That’s the year state officials quietly ended some of the last official policies linked to racial segregation. The Alabama Department of Public Health, Center For Health Statistics, stopped certifying parents’ race on birth certificates of infants born within the state. All certifications of new infant births filed with that department since 1991 are non-racial. This policy change resulted when the board of health changed the forms used for birth certification. Alabama joins 45 other states with this new policy. Only Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas continue to issue birth certificates that identifies the race of the infant.

For administrative purposes, the Center For Health Statistics continues to collect statistical data based on race. The center’s director, Dorothy Harshbarger, says “for our purpose, whatever race the mother declares herself at the time of birth becomes the statistical race of her newborn child, and that this statistical data cannot be used to identify any particular individual.” For example, Harshbarger explained, a child born to a mother who declares herself black, counts in the health departments’ statistics as a (male or female) infant born to a black mother. Conversely, the newborn whose mother declares herself white, counts statistically as an infant born to a white mother. This new policy disregards the race of the father entirely, but more importantly, it puts an end to the state classifying individuals into racial categories at birth.

In Alabama, anyone requesting a copy of their birth certificate, whose birth was certified prior to 1991, will receive a copy of the old certificate that indicates the race category assigned to their parents. The new policy doesn’t establish a procedure for issuing the new non-racial certificate solely for the purpose of replacing a racially classified one. Only individuals requesting a change to their birth certification …for example, a legal change of name… will receive the new non-racial certificate.

Prior to 1990, existing policy mandated that a mixed race child …an infant born of a white and a non-white parent… be classified the race of the non-white parent. This aspect of old segregation law presented an absolute legal barrier between a white parent and his or her child with a non-white person.

The Alabama Department of Public Safety also eliminated race as a descriptor on Alabama Driver Licenses. All Alabama driver licenses issued since 1991 do not ascribe a racial category for the applicant. Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokesperson, Doris Teague, says the department continues to collect racial data from applicants and that the race of permit holders remains accessible to law enforcement personal, it’s just not printed on the driver license certificate issued to the applicant. Because driver licenses expire 4 years after issue, all racially classified licenses will soon be replaced with the new non-racial permit.

The Alabama Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ (BMV) current policy of collecting racial data for internal records of the department, continues to divide Alabamians by race. There are no legitimate reasons to continue collecting this racial data. This policy continues to cast a suspicious shadow of unequal treatment of non-white motorists by law enforcement personnel accessing this racial data from BMV computers.

These policy changes are praiseworthy, notwithstanding BMV computers. The individuals responsible for quietly establishing these new policies deserve our salute. Alabama no longer leads the rest of the nation with respect to racially divisive policies and regulations. In past years, some industries shunned Alabama because our leaders flew the Confederate battle flag …a flag that’s considered by many to be symbolic of racial oppression… atop it’s capitol dome. Today, thanks to a wise judicial decision by Judge William Gordon, the Confederate battle flag no longer flies atop Alabama’s Capitol. Alabamians can take just pride in these policy changes and a court decision that take us a long way down that widening path toward the end of racial divisiveness and intolerance in our state.


Originally Published: May 1993, Montgomery Advertiser

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