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Sunday, October 24, 2004
PoliColumn II: Alabama’s Amendment II

By Steven Taylor @ 10:25 am

This piece is supposed to be running in today’s Mobile Register, but none of their op/ed stuff made the web today:

In Support of Amendment 2

As usual there are a plethora of amendments on the ballot this year. And, as usual, many of them are quite trivial in nature; for example, one of the Amendments is about promoting the shrimp and seafood industry. However, there is one in particular that is quite significant on a variety of levels, and that has come under attack—an attack which I would argue is misguided.

The Amendment in question is Amendment 2, which proposes what would seemingly be a non-controversial action: the stripping of racist language from the Alabama State Constitution concerning segregated schools and the poll tax. Controversy has arisen from some quarters that some of the language that will be removed might open the door to lawsuits over education funding, and therefore to increased taxes.

Indeed, claims have been made that the changes in question will lead to attacks on private schools and home-schoolers in addition to the tax and lawsuit issues. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore has called the Amendment a “bait and switch” tactic and a “Trojan horse.” The Amendment has also been attacked by the head of the Alabama Christian Coalition, the Alabama Policy Institute, Alabama’s Association of Judeo-Christian Values, and Supreme Court candidate Tom Parker.

The question before us as voters is two-fold. First, what is at stake in this proposed amendment? Second, what are the merits of these critiques?

Now, it should be noted from the start, that these provisions (in Sections 256 and 259, along with Amendments 90, 109 and 111) are mostly dead letter, that is to say, they are unenforceable provision as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings decades ago. Nonetheless, the language has remained in the copious and arcane document we call the Alabama State Constitution. However, it should further be noted that there is powerful symbolism in the fact that most fundamental law in the state says “[s]eparate 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” as it currently does in Section 256.

Lest we don’t know, or have forgotten, the state constitution has 287 Sections (the US Constitution has seven articles) and has been amended 742 times (as opposed to twenty-seven in the case of the US Constitution, which is over 100 years older than Alabama’s). As I often warn my students, whatever you do with the Alabama State Constitution, don’t drop it on your foot.

Of course, length alone should neither extol nor condemn the document; rather the reason for the length is the problem: the document was written in 1901 to favor the land-owning elite at the time, to severely curtail the power of local government, and to limit the political power of and poor whites. It is a document with profound anti-democratic elements (many of which have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) and it also a document designed to centralize power in Montgomery and then eviscerate it. As such it should be remembered as to why we have to go through this process every two years (or less) and why it is that we have some an ineffective government. The issues in Amendment 2 should remind us of what we are truly dealing with.

And yes, it should be acknowledged that to excise this tumor from the body politic of our state is mainly symbolic. However, it is a powerful symbol, both internally and externally. Further, if seeing the ugliness that exists there should spur us to further consider why we have not radically reformed this document, so much the better.

The controversy noted above centers around the removal of the following from Amendment 111: “but nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense, nor as limiting the authority and duty of the legislature, in furthering or providing for education, to require or impose conditions or procedures deemed necessary to the preservation of peace and order.”

Critics of the removal of this phrase want to pretend, or even think, that there is nothing racist about this phrase. However, let us consider the context in which the original language of Amendment 111 was written and passed: it was in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. There is no doubt that the intent of Amendment 111, and the language currently under controversy, was intended to limit education policy because of the requirement for integration. Since many white families (especially elite ones) had started to move to private schools, the segregationists in state government sought to limit the quality of public education. To ignore this fact is to ignore the blighted history of our state.

As such, the removal of this language is not some scheme to allow for unfettered lawsuits and radical tax increases. Rather, it is an attempt to rectify wrongs from our past and perhaps set us at least partially on the proper course into the future. Is it possible that the removal of this language may lead to lawsuits over funding equity in the state? Perhaps. Is it likely to result in a policy earthquake? No.

Regardless, the future of Alabama lies in education. If the result of the repeal of this language is a long, hard look at how we educate the children of this state, regardless of color and economic status, then I say: bring it on.

Understand, I am not arguing that government, per se, is the solution to the problems of Alabama. Indeed, by pointing to education as the engine that drives improvement and success, I am ultimately pointing to the individual as the solution. However, government is currently in the way of individual improvement due to an arcane constitution and a substandard education system.

Not changing this language will greatly damage the reputation of our state, thereby damaging our economic appeal and provide yet more reasons for those on the outside to look askance at our educational system.

I also would note that is it not just the state’s reputation that is at stake here. Having organizations such as the Alabama Christian Coalition come out in opposition to this measure does not help the image of Alabama Christians (a number in which I count myself) in any form and has the effect of besmirching the name of Christ. To associate with the protection of racist language is quite damaging in and of itself. Further, to base opposition on the unlikely outcome that poor children in the state might have their schools better funded further strikes me as similarly problematic.

There is a knee-jerk reaction in our state whenever the very hint of new taxes emerges, to the point that it seems to obscure the problems we have as a state and it specifically blinds us to the woeful condition of our state’s constitution and educational system. So I would recommend that citizens truly consider what is at stake here, rather than simply reacting to the word “taxes.”

In many ways, the vote on Amendment 2 is the most important one on our state’s ballot this year, and to have one’s vote changed as a result of scare tactics would be a shame.

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  1. Steven: Out of curiosity, why did the people proposing this amendment not propose a “clean” amendment omitting the removal of Amendment 111? While the circumstances of its passage are regrettable, from a public policy standpoint it seems like a reasonable position.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 1:12 pm

  2. I really don’t know the exact motivation for the removal of that language (and its all of Amednment 111, btw).

    However, my position is that the language in quesiton isn’t just a principled position on policy, but was an attempt to damage the public school system, which was seen at the time as therefore damaging black students.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 4:20 pm

  3. Does voting FOR the amendment remove Amendment 111? Is that what you are advocating?

    Comment by Jan — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 5:39 pm

  4. Yes, I am advocating a “Yes” vote for Amendment Two, which strips language from a variety of sources from the state’s constitution.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 8:51 pm

  5. “Its all of Amednment 111″

    Ah, which seems to suggest the proponents thought it would be uncontroversial. Gotcha.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence — Monday, October 25, 2004 @ 8:17 am

  6. Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful discussion regarding Proposed Amendment 2.

    Comment by Larry Teal — Monday, November 1, 2004 @ 4:33 pm

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