Institutionalized Racism

Institutionalized Racism

by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

12 December 2010 ©

Reading: “In a rational, logical world,”  From the The Anniston Star Editorial Board November 5 2010

In a rational, logical world, Anniston would be able to resume paying for college scholarships for graduates of the city’s public high school.

It’s a case of local people having a say in what their city does — or should do, at least. In Tuesday’s election, Anniston residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of using city money to send eligible Anniston teens to college. The tally wasn’t close, 63.6 percent to 36.4 percent.

But this isn’t a rational, logical world.

Thanks to the state’s archaic 1901 Constitution, voters in Anniston and Calhoun County both had to approve the local amendment, even though people who don’t live in Anniston have no dog in the fight over how Anniston’s City Council writes the city’s checks.

Anniston residents passed the amendment.

Calhoun County residents didn’t.

Thus, Anniston can’t resume its worthwhile college scholarship program because state law foolishly requires that such amendments be passed both by the city and the county — even though only Anniston money would have gone to the scholarships. It’s an Anniston deal, for Anniston students, and people who don’t live in Anniston barred its rebirth.

Thanks a lot, 1901 Constitution.

Institutionalized Racism

The tale of Anniston not getting to decide what to do with Anniston money is not a unique tale in Alabama.  It isn’t just some quirky archaic law left over from a bygone era that no one pays attention to anymore like it being illegal in the State of Alabama to impersonate Clergy[1].  By the way, impersonating clergy comes with a very hefty penalty, $500 fine and/or up to one year in the county jail.  I know you all are just itching to break that law so I am keeping my eyes on you.   The law that kept Anniston, a community that demographically is about 50% black is codified in our constitution so that Calhoun County, which is 77% white can keep them in check.

No one ever states it quite like that but that is how the Alabama constitution is written and for that purpose.  In the convention hearings of 1901, there was expressed fear of “negro domination” and the response was to “establish White Supremacy in this state[2]” of Alabama.  The state legislature was to hold the power over local communities to prevent them from directing their own local destiny. This was done in two ways. The entire state had to vote on an issue occurring in a county of the state or the county had to vote on an issue occurring in one of its municipalities, even though the rest of the state or the rest of the county could care less about a new sewage treatment plant being built that would be paid for by the residents of the specific community.  The Alabama constitution is a prime example of what institutionalized racism looks like in America.

Someone could say, but Fred, all those laws in the constitution that were directed against blacks were made null and void by the federal civil rights act in 1964.  In fact, this is the rebuttal by “Citizens Against Constitutional Reform” to the “Alabama Citizens for Constitution Reform’s” claim that the 1901 Constitutional Convention “disenfranchised poor whites and Blacks in that memorable document.”   The Citizens Against Constitutional Reform state, “No one in Alabama is disenfranchised from full participation in today’s society or prosperity[3].”   Not true. In fact there is still on the books a section of the constitution that legalizes segregation of schools. While Brown v. the Board of Education made the law unconstitutional, it still remains active on the books. The offending words that are still active in the constitution are “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.[4]

An amendment to repeal this amendment of racial segregation failed.  “Nearly all organizations opposing the repeal of the segregation measure pointed to a provision stating that the state did not provide a right to a state financed education. Groups opposing the repeal of this amendment claimed that repeal would lead to court decisions requiring the state to raise taxes.[5]

This defeat happened, not in 1954 when Brown v Board of Education decision was made, not in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed but in 2004.  Fifty years after the ruling that unequivocally determined that separate but equal was only separate and certainly not equal. This repeal was defeated because there was a fear of taxation, not because people didn’t abhor segregation, not because they didn’t see this section of the constitution as wrong but because they feared an increase in taxation.  I’ll come back to taxation and how it plays its part in racism later.

The constitution of 1901 was written with the sole purpose of disenfranchising the Blacks. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was a lot of voting fraud happening.  People would appear to have voted who didn’t show up to vote. Ballots would be stuffed. So when the vote came regarding the question to hold a constitutional convention and to the vote to ratify the new constitution, a curious thing happened according to the press.

The majority of the state of Alabama, where the majority of white voters lived, the question to ratify the constitution was defeated, 76K to 72K against.  But in the region where the majority of Black voters lived in Alabama, ironically known as the Black belt for its black top soil, Blacks apparently, or so we have been told, voted for the new constitution knowing that the outcome of this new constitution would disenfranchise them.  In Hale, Dade, and Wilcox Counties the vote was 18,000 for ratification and 500 against.  The White population in these three counties alone was only 5600 and the Black population was 12,400.  Anyone doing the math on this?  It was the vote in the Black Belt that swung the majority of votes to ratify a new constitution to create a white supremacist state.

The headlines of the day read, “Negroes not interested; in many places voted the Democratic Ticket.[6]”  With widespread stealing of the votes as the practice of the day, it is most likely that these votes were stolen.  Even in the records of the convention the stealing of votes was publicly acknowledged.  “But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law–not by force or fraud. If you teach your boy that it is right to buy a vote, it is an easy step for him to learn to use money to bribe or corrupt officials or trustees of any class. If you teach your boy that it is right to steal votes, it is an easy step for him to believe that it is right to steal whatever he may need or greatly desire.[7]

Now again, the right to vote was restored with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The poll tax and the literacy requirements to vote were struck from the state constitution. Therefore, the constitution is no longer a racist document, right?  Wrong.

This is the thing with institutionalization of any premise.  Once something is institutionalized it is in the fabric of how we do things to the point of not recognizing why we are doing them or who they may be affecting and hurting.  It simply is so.  For example, on a much smaller scale, when I asked my mother why she scraped the pork chops before cooking them, she replied because her mother did it.  Why did Grandma do it, because great grandma did it.  Why did Great grandma do it; because when she got the pork chops from the butcher they often had bone chips in the meat so she was scraping them out.  The behavior of scraping the pork chops was institutionalized into how my family prepared pork chops.  Now there is no harm in this small illustration of institutionalizing behavior.

But let me ask you why do we have the residents of this state vote on a matter that only pertains to one small locale?  And why is it important for that matter to become an amendment to the constitution?  The answer to both of these questions is because at one point in time, these actions maintained white supremacy rule.  To have the white majority of the state vote on whether a predominantly black community can offer educational scholarships becomes a very important question for the state seeking to maintain white supremacy.  Education presented a risk to the White majority.  And it still does today in Anniston, AL where the White Calhoun County voted no to Anniston offering scholarships to their almost 50% black, 50% white student population.   But today, we have no reason to continue this practice that was institutionalized over 100 years ago.

The definition of institutionalized racism is patterns in societal structures, such as those found within governmental institutions that result in imposing oppressive or negative conditions on identifiable groups of people on the basis of race or ethnicity[8].  So while the laws that blatantly oppress people of color in the constitution have for the most part been removed, the very structure of the constitution remains to uphold institutionalized racism.

The Anniston example given earlier is an example of this institutionalized racism.  It is the perhaps the hardest to eradicate because the patterns have become so common place, so everyday, that people do not see its impact racially.  While the vote in Calhoun County to deny Anniston the right to spend their money as they see fit might be argued as not being racist, but when looking at who is going to be disproportionately impacted by not having Anniston scholarship money available to them, it is people of color.

The process from conception to amendment to ratification vote by the people in the state can take several years because the bill can get bogged down in committee or not get passed in the house and the senate within the given session.  So even though the local government has passed this ordinance or resolution they are barred from implementing it because the state was not able to get the amendment ready for the ballot.  The wheels turn ever so slowly when seeking to control the destiny of other people deemed unable to determine their fate.

These structures were put into place to maintain white supremacy of Alabama. But it isn’t only this structure; the constitution also has set the tax codes as a means to maintain white supremacy of the wealthy.  Constitutions generally should not be setting the tax code.  Constitutions should authorize the state legislature to levy taxes but not be the holder of the tax code.  However, Alabama was reacting to re-constructionists and the carpetbagger’s who sought their fortune and built railroads and public schools through hefty property taxes. So in the constitution of 1901, income and property taxes were given set limits which resulted in sales taxes as being the only other source of revenue that could be levied with less restriction.  Alabama’s sales tax codes are the most regressive in the nation because they adversely affect the poorest of the poor while benefiting the wealthiest of citizens and special interest groups.

Alabama further altered the way property taxes are applied allowing for exemption of taxes to special interest groups who can assert that their property has an agricultural use. The loss in revenue to the state through these special interest group exemptions is estimated to be $40 million annually[9].  This is money that would have been used to fund rural public schools in the state making them among the poorest in their ability to offer a quality education.  The most affected by this institutionalized structure are the poor in the state increasing the chances for their remaining oppressed.

There are also schools in the state that use sales taxes to fund their services.  The problem is sales taxes are dependent on economy ebbs and flows more so than the other two.  When the state is in a recession, like it has been, people tend to purchase less and therefore sales tax revenue drops.

It is hard to fathom people understanding that their increased sales tax on the purchase of Doritos is going to keep little Johnnie and Mary in school.  Whereas it is easier for people to understand that their local property tax will ensure their children receiving a quality education.  But who are the people who pay the most in sales taxes?  By percentage it is people who are poor pay more of a percentage of their income on sales tax than people who are wealthy.  The wealthy tend to spend their money on services which are not taxable.

There is a need to rewrite the constitution so that 1) local governments have a greater ability to serve the needs of their community and 2) so that the tax code can be adjusted to be equitable to the abilities of its citizens.  For example tax codes that offer sizable exemptions to the paper mills vast forests from property taxes increases the burden on the rural residents of those counties to raise the needed funds to support the education of their children.

What can we do?  Our sister congregation in Birmingham has passed a resolution that will be sent to legislators in the state endorsing the idea of constitution reform.  We can write and pass a similar resolution to join with theirs.  We can write our state representatives and state senators and tell them that constitution reform is not just about home rule and taxes but also undoing the structures that maintain the institutional racism embedded in the current document. It will reduce the cost of government by having local resolutions, local ordinances, local revenues kept to the local level.  Reform will free up those resources so that our state reps can deal with state issues like job creation, transportation infrastructure, and improving our public education.

We can help create a better Alabama where all people benefit from the resources that are available and lifted up to reach their full potential as citizens.  So may it be.


[1] Acts 1965, 1st Ex. Sess., No. 273, p. 381; Code 1975, §13-4-99

[5] Ibid.

[6] as found in the video, It’s a Thick Book  http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4332178818631634021#

[8] Based on definition offered by About.com for institutional racism

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