Exclusive: Most important election for civil rights in many years

This is the most important election for civil rights in many years. I was in Washington state recently meeting with educators who work on issues of college access and equity and on the way home I decided that I should put together some words about the very high stakes for civil rights in this election since I see that turnout of melllennials and African Americans is down in some close states and there are several percent of voters including some Bernie activists who are not motivated to vote. Since media coverage has been so dominated by scandals and attacks which will not really matter much in our history and there has been so very little serious information about vital issues, I don’t want the election to pass into history without explaining why it is so important and the choice is so dramatic for the future of justice in our society.

We are at a critical point of decision in our society and we have seen the most ugly racist campaign in our lifetimes yet there are people not deciding to vote or to cast a symbolic vote for a third party candidate not thinking that the choice is crucial. Black turnout so far is lagging, many millennial who were supporters of Bernie are thinking about third party votes, and others just don’t see the differences since research has shown there has been extremely little mass media coverage of actual isuses as opposed to polls and scandals.

Since I have spent my entire career studying and working on civil rights issues, I conclude that Hillary Clinton could be the most effective civil rights President in a half century and the election of Donald Trump would be the worst reversal since the election of Woodrow Wilson who resegregated the federal government. Hillary has strongly identified with the two most active civil rights movement now, the Black Lives Matter and the immigrant rights movement and is a committed supporter of the basic nondiscrimination laws and court decisions. Trump has proposed to control the direction of the Supreme Court with appointments on the model of Antonin Scalia, a strong civil rights opponent who sometimes ridiculed civil rights claims while Hillary Clinton has promised to nominate strong progressives. Trump began his career discriminating against minorities wanting to rent his family’s apartments; Hillary as a investigator against discrimination in the South.

In race relations, presidential leadership is very important in creating the climate and incentivizing the direction that attitudes will turn and practices will change. The South, after the Civil War had generation of racial demagogues who continuously reduced rights of minorities and won for governments serving the rich by playing on the racial fears of lower income whites. It produced a terrible politics in which progress became almost impossible and racial subordination permeated society.

When JFK and LBJ called on the country to enact sweeping civil rights laws for the first time since Reconstruction, the laws were enacted, racism receded, and vast changes took place. Trump would quickly suspend DACA, tearing undocumented young people out of college and jobs in the only country they have known since they were little children. The Trump campaign is a clear effort to do this on a national issue and to target hate and fear on immigrants, Muslims and other groups. There are kinds of angry screaming racist crowds responding to those issues in ways we haven’t seen in national campaigns for generations, ways that led to repression and foster open, ugly racism.

Trump would stand on the side of the police in the shooting incidents while Hillary very closely identified with the mothers of the murdered black men. Hillary Clinton’s political life was deeply shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and she has spoken out about it more clearly than any presidential candidate in many years. (Obama had to restrain himself because of the danger that he would be dismissed as the President for African Americans only).

The great victories of the civil rights movement were attacked and sometimes reversed by Republican administrations since then have been active enemies of civil rights and have succeeded in transforming our courts and many agencies to roll back and interpret away those rights. But none of them have fostered the overt hostility of a campaign that has won the praise and support of white segregationists. The Supreme Court has had a majority of Justices appointed by conservative Republican presidents for more than four decades. The court has severely weakened the Voting Rights Act which is why many states have been allowed to implement sets of policies designed by conservatives to lower voting participation by nonwhites.

The Court is also the basic reason why minority students, especially in the South, have experienced growing segregation by race and class in inferior schools following a serious of hostile Court decisions and nothing has been done by what has become even more segregation for Latino students. We’ve lost a half century of progress.

This Supreme Court concluded, 5-4, that there is no federal right to equal educational resources and gravely weakened the rights of non-English speaking students. Affirmative action has been preserved by a single vote and could be lost if Trump gets more than one appointment as could fundamental women’s rights. The federal courts have a crucial role to play in reforming discrimination in the criminal justice system which treats nonwhites so differently.

The Court has also given unlimited rights to billionaires and corporations to pour money into campaigns to skew elections (reversing this was one of the fundamental goals of the Bernie Sanders campaign). That, of course, diminishes the power of communities with few billionaires. Because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia we have an opportunity to create a more progressive court majority for the first time in generations. When I was a young professor, I testified against Nixon’s appointment of William Rehnquist who had harassed minority voters as a young conservative activist in Phoenix and supported the right of restaurants and hotels to deny service to minorities. He was confirmed and served for 33 years, almost two decades as Chief Justice and he voted as predicted helping end or cut back the work of the Warren Court. If Trump is elected he is promising to appoint very conservative Justices like Scalia who would narrow rights for several decades to come.

Many who are on fence have not thought about is the fact that this would be the first time in at least a century that all three branches of the federal government would be firmly in control of the extreme right of the GOP if Trump were elected and kept control of both houses of Congress and made the Supreme Court appointments he promised. This would mean that many policies could be enacted and put into place relatively rapidly to move the country dramatically backward into a pre-civil rights era even as the country is becoming predominantly nonwhite.

The social policy that we could expect from Trump and a supportive Congress would give huge tax breaks to the very rich, create vast debts, and to have no money for social policies. Trump plans, for example, to cut federal student loans and turn it over to private banks and to eliminate Obamacare for millions and turn it back to insurance companies and we know how those worked for families of color in the past. Hillary favors a substantial increase in the minimum wage that determines the budget of millions of families of color; Trump opposes it. It goes on and on. This election has become too close and too critical for voters who care about fairness and racial justice in our highly stratified and divided society to give up their chance to make a difference. Maybe it isn’t the choice that you might have preferred but you need to face the fact that it is a very real and consequential choice that will significantly shape the lives and opportunities of this generation of Americans.

Gary Orfield, Professor and Co-Director at the UCLA Civil Rights Project

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