Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Saturday, November 27, 2004

They'll be ashamed someday

Down in Alabama, voting on a proposed constitutional amendment resulted in a margin of only 1,850 votes out of 1.38 million, so there will be an automatic recount on Monday.

These things happen in elections, but this one seems a little odd. The amendment would have removed language in the state’s constitution which requires racially segregated public schools.

As reported in the Washington Post:

There are competing theories about the defeat of Amendment 2, the measure that would have taken "colored children" and segregated schools out of Alabama's constitution. One says latent, persistent racism was to blame; another says voters are suspicious of all constitutional amendments; and a third says it was not about race but about taxes.

The amendment had two main parts: the removal of the separate-schools language and the removal of a passage -- inserted in the 1950s in an attempt to counter the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools -- that said Alabama's constitution does not guarantee a right to a public education. Leading opponents, such as Alabama Christian Coalition President John Giles, said they did not object to removing the passage about separate schools for "white and colored children." But, employing an argument that was ridiculed by most of the state's newspapers and by legions of legal experts, Giles and others said guaranteeing a right to a public education would have opened a door for "rogue" federal judges to order the state to raise taxes to pay for improvements in its public school system.

The argument plays to Alabama's primal fear of federal control, a fear born of years of resentment over U.S. courts' ordering the desegregation of schools and the creation of black-majority legislative districts.

"Activists on the bench know no bounds," Giles said. "It's a trial lawyer's dream."

The prospect (or perhaps fear is a better word) of a court ruling that would take the school funding issue out of the hands of the legislature has produced an unfortunate result.

The probability of a federal court’s action seems vanishingly small; but if the state’s constitution can be read as guaranteeing a publicly-funded education the chance of a lawsuit in state court is not so small. One need only look to see what has occurred in other states, where school funding issues have been the subject of court rulings.

One could argue (as editors and “experts” apparently did) that this small chance is no reason to vote against the proposed amendment, but the argument would ignore the normal human instinct to ponder the motives of the amendment’s proponents.

Alabama’s constitution requires racially segregated schools, but that provision has no legal effect. Removing it would be a purely cosmetic act.

Such a cosmetic act would nevertheless be an important achievement, since erasing such provisions from the law with the approval of the people would be some evidence that the majority has accepted as right what was once imposed by a court.

The apparent disapproval of the amendment has done the opposite by causing many people to believe that racist motives linger -- and explain the election’s result.

Requiring a publicly-funded education would have more than a cosmetic effect, so it seems natural to wonder whether the opportunity to go to court in an effort to force the legislature to increase school funding is the proponents’ principal motivation.

If it is, they should put their efforts into the legislative process, rather than planning on judicial intervention. In a republic, taxation and the expenditure of public funds are to be decided by the people’s elected legislative representatives. Period.

Without the influence of the school funding issue, the cosmetic act of removing the racial segregation provision should be accomplished with ease -- and the people of Alabama will be one small step closer to the time when they can demonstrate that they feel genuine shame about the way some of them and their ancestors behaved toward fellow human beings.


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