Battle line: The fight for racial equality is a 'fight for all to be free'

– Photo by Frank Weir

By Frank Weir
Legal News

There’s much to be done in the fight for racial equality and indicators show progress has slowed, said Barbara Arnwine, keynote speaker at Eastern Michigan University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration 2016.

Arnwine spoke at both a luncheon and gave the keynote address afterwards, at EMU on January 18.  She was the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law from 1989 to 2015 and is president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition.

In 2011, she and the Lawyers’ Committee began tracking suppressive voting legislation nationwide and created the “Map of Shame” which remains a popular reference.

In a stirring hour-long presentation, Arnwine paid homage to Rev.  Martin Luther King Jr., stated her opinion of the current status of racial equality, and made suggestions for change.

She began by noting that King’s birth name was Michael King Jr. His father traveled to Germany and became enthralled with the legacy of Martin Luther and on his return, renamed himself and his son.

“Imagine what that meant to a 5-year-old and with the explanation his father gave him for why the change was necessary,” Arnwine said. “The name of a man who so profoundly changed the world.”

She added that, “With this name change, this new identity, Martin Luther King Jr., became aware that there were great expectations of him. He became ware of the power that one person can have, to stand up despite hate and persecution and lead a world wide movement.”

She noted that he “was a fighter, a warrior; driven by a philosophy of change and societal transformation.”

Arnwine said that decades after the assassination of King, there is “no willingness to fight against racism. There is great confusion regarding race in our society.” She cited survey results that show 52 percent of all white Americans feel that they are discriminated against equally as blacks and other minorities. But in sub categories, 76 percent of Tea Party members agreed while 61 percent of Republicans concurred. But 62 percent of Democrats disagreed that they were discriminated against equally with minorities, she said.

“What accounts for this perspective?” asked Arnwine. “This delusional perspective? Fear of demographic change. It’s predicted that people of color will constitute a majority of our nation by 2043. California and New Mexico are states of color in population but not in leadership and governance. Texas is at the tipping pint and Mississippi is close behind.

“Since Obama, some members of white America have become unhinged. ‘We want our nation back.’ From whom?”

She added that some white Americans profess a nostalgia for the 1950s which represented a nightmare for most black Americans. 

“Blacks were oppressed brutally,” she said of the time period. “They were taxed for housing programs only available to whites. These governmental programs built the white middle class. They built home ownership. Housing and employment decimation were legal. Equal education was denied.”

She said that major white law firms refused to hire blacks, women, and Jews.

“Thurgood Marshall could not get a job. Sandra Day O’Connor could not get a firm to hire her. Bernard Siegel, president of the American Bar Association, also was rejected by firms because he was Jewish.”

Arnwine stated that a failure to address “structural racism” represents a large part of the challenge of racism in American society.

“It is the root of our racism,” Arnwine said.

“It’s embodied in our Constitution. Slavery is never mentioned in the Constitution, but 12 of its provisions are based on slavery. The constitutional contradiction is alive and well. It serves as the bedrock of structural racism and white supremacy.”

Arnwine citied “shocking” studies that have indicated that racial equality may be 100 to 150 years in the future, while equality for women may be 100 years down the road.

And what’s to be done? Arnwine offered her suggestions for change.

“One of the biggest mistakes of the 1960s civil rights movement was not including women in leadership positions,” she declared. “There were so many profound women who were amazing high powered
and thoughtful and skilled leaders but they weren’t at the forefront. Women must be moved to the center of a movement. “

She emphasized a need to “end policing as we know it. We need to restructure police departments from patrol and control, to protect and serve. We don’t need more police.” She suggested that there needs to be society interveners to work with families before police confrontations.

In closing, she stated that the Black Lives Matter movement had “brought honest talk about racism” and had increased white understanding about racism. She also stated that AmeriCorps and other jobs programs had made a significant difference in creating a black middle class.

In response to a post-presentation question, she said that one should “never underestimate the power of what you can do in your own space. You don’t have to have 20,000 followers or be on CNN. Start educating where you are. Everyone has power. Organize, use your position. Follow your heart.”

Subscribe to the Legal News!
Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more
Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year
Three-County & Full Pass also available