Tuesday, March 08, 2005
On this day:

Racist Language in the Alabama Constitution

News outlets have frequently used the term "racist" when referring to the language in the Alabama constitution that would have been removed by Amendment 2. The latest example came in this article which appeared in the Birmingham News. Unfortunately, this characterization is needlessly misleading.

Amendment 2 would have removed several provisions from the Alabama Constitution. Some relate to maintaining a system of segregated schools, others to poll taxes, and another to the nonrecognition of a "right" to a public education.

There is no doubt that the constitutional provisions enforcing segregation of the public schools are inherently racist, in that they are based on notions of racial superiority and/or racial prejudice. However, I would argue that the other provisions are not.

Poll taxes are direct, uniform taxes levied on each adult citizen. They have been a common form of taxation for much of recorded history. In the U.S., especially in the South, their payment was often a prerequisite for voting, and they were widely used to disenfranchise black voters. However, it is simply not accurate to say that the Constitution's language relating to the poll tax is inherently racist, since race is neither mentioned nor implied.

Likewise, the language stating that "nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense" cannot legitimately be called "racist." Granted, it was implemented during the segregation era with the aim of undermining desegregation orders by the federal courts, but again, the language does not mention race, nor is a racial context implied.

The racial issues surrounding the poll tax and "no right to a public education" provisions are rooted in their intent and application. They do not arise from the text of the Constitution. I may be picking nits here, but misapplication of the term "racist" strips the word of its true meaning, causing unnecessary confusion over what are intensely emotional topics.