Path of Racial Discrimination Ends With Criminal Statutes

There are no other options. The only way to end race-based discrimination it to criminalize the behavior. Since its founding, America has moved along a tortured racial path. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence acknowledged a list of self-evident truths. Then, for four score and seven years, we proceeded to live a lie about those truths.

Although White Americans committed countless evils against other racial groups in our nation. I focus here on the vast and bitter divide stemming from the peculiar institution of race-based slavery.

Try as it did during the early years of our nation, Congress could not construct a legislative bridge with enough political endurance to span the ideological gap between white Americans over Negro slavery. Even the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared, slaves were not citizens of the United States, failed to bridge the chasm created by slavery.

We know from a painful history how the nation became reunited. Americans fought other Americans in a bloody Civil War. At the end of that war, with the blood of countless Americans staining our landscape, President Lincoln recommitted the nation to its creed. Symbolically, he used the bodies of thousands of American dead to rededicate the nation to the “Proposition that all men are created equal.”

Fast forward the nation thirty six years. The US Supreme Court established the “Separate but Equal doctrine” with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. It allowed states to enact racial segregation laws, known in the vernacular as “Jim Crow Law.”

Jim Crow Law codified the most base and dehumanizing aspects of slavery into law and segregated Americans by race from birth to death. For fifty eight years, 1896 to 1954, Americans lived the ideological lie of “separate but equal.” In 1954, when the US Supreme Court ended this legal racial nightmare with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the work to deconstruct the social underpinnings of institutional racism began.

Jim Crow didn’t just pack his bags and fly away. Many of the laws had to be individually challenged in the courts. As most Alabamians know, the striking down of the law requiring Black people to sit in the rear of the bus began its journey to the Supreme Court here in Montgomery.

Federal troops were required to enforce laws integrating schools in Arkansas and Alabama. In fact, it took years of sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, and private law-suits, which combined became known as the Civil Rights Movement, to rid society of Jim Crow Law.

Today Jim Crow is gone. What remains is an institutional legacy of Jim Crow segregation. I believe that this institutional legacy of segregation will remain as long as there are government-sanctioned racial categories. We must use a social force similar to that mustered to rid society of legal segregation to criminalize its institutional legacy.

Today, many if not most mainstream Americans are uncomfortable with the parenthetic use of racial categories in casual conversations. Many newspapers, including the Advertiser, have eliminated the use of racial classifications in news articles when race is not germane to the particular story.

Everyday society moves closer to eliminating racism within the mainstream. In the day to day life of most individual Americans, racism is not a major factor. Racism experienced by Americans today is most often found at the fringes of society. It is at the margin of society that institutional power combines with individual values to manifest racism. The only way to eliminate the toxic mixture of race and power which produces racism is to eliminate the volatile contribution racial categories adds to society.

Today, there are no justifications for government racial categories. Government should eliminate their use in existing census data. It is illegal to create race-based political districts. It is illegal to make employment decisions based on race. Racial information can’t legally be used in making decisions about anything, from renting or buying a house to what school or college one attends. So…what use is all this race data?

To those who say the government needs racial data to enforce laws against racial discrimination, I say, change the law. Make race-based discrimination a crime. Then any person arrested and found guilty of race-based discrimination would be subject to our criminal statutes and sanctions. Such a law would discourage if not eliminate race-based discrimination in most organizations. And when we end race-based discrimination, there will be no need for divisive remedies like affirmative action.

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Published: 17 December 1997, Montgomery Advertiser

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