The Long Haul

The Long Haul

Wendy Johnson

Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 1-2

A federal court lawsuit filed November 17 challenges the constitutionality of yet another congressional election district. The newest challenge, to U.S. Representative Robert Scott’s Virginia district, represents the eleventh majority-black or -Hispanic district to be challenged by associates of the “Campaign for a Color Blind Society Legal Defense and Education Fund.” In its aggressive and deliberate campaign to undermine and destroy hard-won democratic ideals, the political right wing has been skillful in standing history on its head–taking language and concepts defined and shaped by the Civil Rights Movement to undermine its past victories.

This misappropriation causes confusion, blurs the lines between inclusion and exclusion, and hides the real debate about the potent and powerful role race plays in the daily workings of this country, not only in gaining fair electoral representation, but also in having access to quality education, well-paying jobs, and equal opportunities.

Take, for example, the California “Civil Rights” Initiative. This proposed constitutional amendment for the November 1996 ballot (if it gains enough signatures) reads: “Neither the state of California or any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State’s system for public employment, public education or public contracting.”

The proposed amendment doesn’t sound ominous but its application would, in effect, give opponents of affirmative action a mighty club for beating back the gains of women and minorities in public agencies and schools. If the amendment becomes law, all public con-tract set-aside programs for minority and women-owned business would end; state schools could end minority

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scholarships and diversity programs; government agencies would be exempt from setting up an affirmative action program–except by order of a judge.

Essentially, this so-called civil rights initiative would wipe out state-sponsored affirmative action–even where an agency has admitted past discrimination. When the language for this amendment was tested in a state-wide poll (designed by Louis Harris for the Feminist Majority Foundation in April 1995) 81 percent supported it.

But when told the initiative results in “outlawing all affirmative action programs for women and minorities,” 58 percent opposed the California initiative. When asked about a different proposition: “The state may use affirmative action programs designed to help women, minorities, and others who have not had equal opportunities in education, employment, and in receiving government contracts to achieve equal opportunities,” a solid 68 percent to 25 percent majority supported it.

Not only have those who seek to end minority office-holding stolen the language of the Civil Rights Movement in an effort to undo laws supported by a majority of Americans, they have imitated Movement strategies as well, building a grassroots base and utilizing the federal courts to press their cause.

Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders best characterizes our struggle: “The fundamental assumption about the Civil Rights Movement is that its work is or will be finished. The reality is that it will never be finished in our lifetimes. In our efforts we often ran one-hundred-yard dashes, but we are in a marathon, so we really have miles to go.”

We have blazed trails with major advances in voter registration, redistricting, and the election of leaders from previously disenfranchised social groups. Now a complacent and disaffected population becomes more and more cynical of the electoral process as a way to achieve social change, of redistricting as a mechanism for advancing democratic goals, and of the possibilities for a common language of understanding in the struggle for civil rights.

As we prepare for the miles ahead, we must craft a progressive unity for civil and human rights. The language, principles, and concepts articulated by architects of the Civil Rights Movement are no longer commonly understood. We must study our history, reassert our roles as stewards of democracy and fairness, and revitalize the language and concepts of justice that have been perverted and twisted by the partisans of reaction.

More than anything else we must begin to craft a political and social movement that can capture the imagination of millions of Americans and move citizens of the South and of this country to greater political participation at local, state, and federal levels.