New Century Politics

New Century Politics

By Wendy S. Johnson

Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 3-4

The social activism of the 1960s gave us some of the most powerful and ground-breaking legislation of the last century–legislation that embraced the themes of freedom, justice, and democracy–most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a result, millions of formerly disfranchised minorities gained a political voice through the power of voting. In the last two decades, we’ve seen a dramatic and disturbing rightward shift in our national policy. In this new century, we face a number of challenges as the future enforcement of these policies is thrown into doubt.

As we prepare for the first presidential race of the new century and the much-anticipated and debated 2000 Census count results, minority voting rights are at a crossroads and questions continue to be raised in the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Threats to minority voting rights increased shortly after the 1990 reapportionment/redistricting cycle, which resulted in dramatic electoral gains for African-American and Latino voters in the 1992 elections.

Led by the case Shaw v. Reno, a series of lawsuits followed that threatened the erasure of minority opportunity districts. Since 1993 thirteen majority-minority congressional districts have been overturned. On the eve of the new redistricting cycle, the courts are still battling over redistricting plans developed after the 1990 Census. The North Carolina 12th district, first challenged in 1992, is back at the Supreme Court for the fourth time as we enter the new decade.

While the Census Bureau crunches numbers for its decennial report, Democrats and Republicans alike are busy filling their political warchests in order to win as many seats as possible. This greedy grab for political seats by any means necessary could have direct impact upon the number of existing majority-minority districts that can be maintained and more importantly, the number that can be gained. Edwin Bender’s article, “Soft Money Showered on the States: Redistricting and Election 2000,” gives you the details of how party efforts are sucking in soft money to influence redistricting outcomes.

The census data will introduce potential perils to the new reapportionment-redistricting cycle–multiple racial and ethnic categories. The reporting format of these multiple categories could become a useful tool for advancing the effective enforcement of civil rights laws or a powerful weapon for opponents of fairness measures.

With dozens of favor-seeking corporations contributing in excess of $100,000, Corporate America is revealed as a key underwriter of both the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions. Jim Hightower’s essay, “The Flim-Flam Campaign: Corporations Buy the Conventions,” provides another sobering yet maddening example of the need for wholesale reform to get money out of politics.

As we list toward the November elections do you know which races to watch and candidates to watch out for? In this issue Sarah Torian has provided an overview of key contests around the South, where the candidates stand on issues that we care about including civil rights, affirmative action, education, and the environment.

As we work to revitalize civil rights enforcement and reduce racial inequality we must, in Barbara Jordan’s words, “make America as good as its promise..

We, you and I, our neighbors, our voting age children, our clergy and labor leaders, our business leaders, and our teachers must demand leadership in developing proactive and effective responses to racial inequities and civil rights concerns from our presidential, congressional, and state leadership. We must make these same demands of community, religious, and political leaders where we live-because there is broad public support for revitalizing existing policies that offer equal opportunity and create new policies to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Demanding accountability from our leaders can take many forms-from letter writing campaigns to community organizing initiatives. But arguably, the most basic and important way to demand this leadership is to make our voices heard on election day.

We shared with you the results of our national survey in our report Seeking on America as Good as its Promise, which established that there is wide support for reducing racially identifiable inequality through tools such as affirmative action among other approaches. Key findings of the publics’ views on political participation and fairness remedies included:

  • 83 percent believe that African Americans should be represented politically in proportion to their numbers in the population;
  • It is in the best interests of the country if our elected officials reflect the racial and ethnic background of the

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    entire population (76 percent);

  • Most Americans support affirmative action (56 percent).

These findings contrast starkly with the assertions of our conservative Congressional members and affirmative action opponents who deny the need and importance of active civil rights enforcement.

As a solution to deepening enforcement of fairness measures, the American public is calling for proactive and assertive leadership. Leadership is critical in marshalling and mobilizing existing support for racial fairness. If our leaders are pro-active in nurturing these threads of hope, the next generation will be ready to follow.

While two out of every three youth aged 18 to 24 do not vote, more than three out of four of this age group (77 percent) say reducing racial inequality is a top or above average priority, compared to 57 percent of older Americans. These same young Americans are somewhat more likely (88 percent) than older Americans (76 percent) to say it is important that voting districts be drawn so that blacks can obtain representation in office comparable to their numbers in the population.

While the 2000 elections are only months away, the expiration of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is slated for 2007. Ellen Spears’ article, “The 2000 Elections and Voting Rights Act Renewal” argues that it is not too early to make the connection between who we vote into office in November and the prospects for balanced and fair consideration of renewing and extending this critically important piece of legislation. Much is at stake.

Findings of support for progressive leadership and young people’s faith in the power of political engagement signal hope for the future. However, if young people aren’t making their opinions known at the polls, their impact is greatly diminished. Can the upcoming presidential election capture the imagination of our disfranchised youth and, hopefully, their votes?

The article, “Young Voters Flee the Polls,” addresses the growing disconnect and disenchantment of young voters with electoral politics. Uninspired by party politics, our youth have abandoned the electoral process. What is our role as leaders, young and old, in nurturing a new attitude and understanding towards effective political engagement? Achieving a democratic and fair society is not a spectator spoil. What have you done lately to encourage young adults to exercise their franchise?

Wendy S. Johnson is executive director of the Southern Regional Council