Democracy or Authoritarianism: What are we becoming?

A standard part of most political science introductory textbooks are definitions and examples of different kinds of political systems. Robert A. Heineman’s textbook outlines the three main types of governmental systems: democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems.

Most Americans are familiar with the democratic system. As participants in such a system we have come to believe, and indeed to expect, we have certain rights and freedoms. These are things like rights to select who will represent us, rights of assembly, rights of free speech, and freedom of association. However, people are less familiar with some of the characteristics of authoritarianism, at least not when these characteristics are exhibited by American governmental institutions.

Unfortunately, because of current immigration policies in many states, it is becoming important for Americans to reacquaint themselves with the definition of authoritarianism. According to Heineman, the characteristics of authoritarian governmental systems include greater control of political processes, greater citizen obedience to a strong government, restricted freedoms of expression of ideas or association, and of course governmental punishment of disobedience (p.3).

Many state immigration public policies are regrettably looking more and more authoritarian and less democratic. The most recent example is Alabama’s immigration policy, which has passed by large margins in both houses of the legislature is expected to be signed by Governor Robert Bentley.

Alabama’s new immigration policy requires children to provide documentation before being enrolled in public school, bars landlords from renting to people who are undocumented, allows police officers to ask about one’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, denies businesses tax deductions on wages paid to unauthorized immigrants, criminalizes the failure of an immigrant to carry documentation proving their legal status on their person, and criminalizes the transport of an illegal immigrant.

Through the measure, Alabama has gone a very long distance from our ideals of American democracy, so much so that even being in a car with someone who is undocumented becomes a crime. One wonders if public bus drivers will now ask for documentation and a bus token before letting a brown person board their bus. Alabama has a history of denying basic liberties and justice for blacks. Now it has found a new group to target its unjust and arbitrary use of state power and racism.

In a Michele Wucker’s chapter in Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right she quotes George W. Bush’s presidential inaugural address:

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more not less American (p. 139).

Based on Arizona’s, Utah’s, and now Alabama’s most recent anti-immigration bill, we are becoming less American every day.

Dreaming of Justice: Undocumented Students and Punitive Immigration Policy

Undocumented students across the country are torn between achieving their dreams of an education, and knowing full well that once they complete their college degree they may not have many options to pursue their careers. This is because the political rhetoric surrounding immigration is punitive and it is time for it to stop. The costs to us all are too great.

One cost is to children raised in the U.S. but brought here illegally by their parents. Rather than giving them the opportunity to attend university by allowing them to pay in-state tuition and passing the Dream Act, so that upon completion of their degrees they can become contributing members of society, we currently leave them in a state of limbo. Those that do make it to university live in constant fear for their futures once they complete their degrees, but even while they attend college they are not able to fully participate in the college experience because they cannot participate in work-study programs on campus or participate in the many study abroad programs. Our current attitude towards immigrants, especially towards Latinos must change. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that undocumented students who pay in-state tuition at universities not only attend university at higher rates, but they have lower dropout rates, and bring financial benefits to the states who allow in-state tuition as well.

However, there are three fundamental challenges in changing this punitive focus on immigration policy:

First, a because of the white racial frame Latinos encounter discrimination, whether immigrant or citizen, even among Latino professionals. We must become aware and challenge the white racial frame. Feagin demonstrates that the current rhetoric of America as a post-racial society is wrong. He states, “this new colorblind rhetoric has just papered over what are still blatantly racist views of Americans of color that have continued in most whites’ framing of this society” (p. 97). This important awareness of racism in America is the first challenge that must be overcome before immigration policy can turn away from its punitive direction.

Secondly, until we can see immigrants as human beings who come here because of crippling poverty, poverty that is so great and unimaginable to most Americans that they resort to doing unthinkable acts just to be here. I recently heard a story of a mother and father who got caught trying to cross into the U.S. illegally and left their four year old daughter with a hotel front desk worker until they could safely get her. Imagine the conditions in Mexico to make parents risk this kind of behavior with their most precious children. A recent report from La Opinion reports that immigrants are also increasingly willing to cut the ends of their fingers off for thousands of dollars in order to not be fingerprinted.

Finally, until we see immigrants as a contribution rather than a cost to America the punitive focus of the immigration debate will not change. There are too many studies which demonstrate that the millions of illegal immigrants who are working in the US are actually providing great services and wealth for small businesses and large corporations. They are contributing not costing America. This economic debate should have been over a long time ago.

Until immigration political rhetoric and policy change from its current punitive position, not only will be continue a racist immigration agenda, endure many humanitarian costs from leaving one’s children vulnerable to cutting ones fingers off to avoid detection, but we will continue on a path bad economic policy as well.

Most sadly, there are too many victims of punitive and misguided immigration policy. And this will not change until we all fight against the white racial frame for immigrants allowing them to express some dignity and humanity while they try to provide for their families in the face of our racialized society today.

White Republicans: Political Decline in California?

The Republican Party in California is in real trouble with only 30.9 percent of registered voters currently registered as Republican. According to a new article by Garry South in the Huffington Post the combination of demographic shifts in the state, which is now 60 percent minority, the lack of Asian, Latino, and Black Republicans, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, all portend trouble for Republicans in California.

One element missing from the discussion is redistricting. In 2008 California voters approved Proposition 11, which allows for a citizen commission to draw district lines, after the public became furious when both parties drew an outrageous district scheme to protect their seats in 2000. If Prop. 11 works to effectively reduce gerrymandering then the Democrats could not only be in the majority but they could soon be a supermajority in the legislature allowing them to make budget and taxation decisions without having to consult with the Republicans.

The demographic environment in California, with minorities leaning towards the Democrats, plus the changes in the redistricting laws could change the outcome of California politics on many fronts.

Another point is that business interests, which are typically represented most strongly in the Republican party, aren’t going away. So, where will they go? It seems to me if the Republican party continues on its anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-people of color bent, then big business will follow the money, or in this case follow the voters, which are increasingly going to be Democrats of color. Will Democrats become the party of “minority friendly” big business, while Republicans become the party of “White Americans R US”?

On the other hand, Dr. Melissa R. Michelson, professor of political science, at Menlo College points out, “The Democratic Party is also not so popular with Californians these days.” In addition, Michelson adds that as the no-taxes/cuts-only budget realities hit the voters, and they see so many programs cut that serve communities of color, such as the cuts to education, who will be blamed?”

When Republican Assemblyman Donnelly invites the sponsor of Arizona’s anti-Latino legislation for a public event it sends a clear message to California’s minority communities, and they have responded by abandoning the Republican party. When Democrats are in power and vital programs for communities of color are cut this too will send a message to minority communities. Who will these communities—which are disproportionately affected by state cuts—blame? And how will they respond?

When are Republicans going to quit being so fearful about the changes in the country and realize that racism and xenophobia will end up being their demise?

Will the old cliché the way California goes, so goes the nation be appropriate here?

Targeting Latino Children is Not the Answer

A recent article published in the New York Times by Kirk Semple reports that federal officials have had to send a memo to various states and school districts informing them that asking for citizenship status before enrolling children is illegal. It seems not only are many school districts (139 in New York State alone) are asking for documentation of students, but certain states such as Oklahoma are considering state bills requiring it. This should not surprise us considering the fact that Congress could not pass the Dream Act, that we have witnessed record number of deportations in recent years which have separated families and placed children in the foster-care maze, and that states have passed discriminatory laws like Arizona’s SB1070. These examples all point to a dark shadow side of America, this land of immigrants.

Xenophobia is nothing new in America, especially during economic hard times. Politicians and other civic leaders historically have succeeded in redirecting the public’s attention to symbolic policy issues that target the most vulnerable, the voiceless, and those who are marginalized. To an American of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Irish, or Southern or Eastern European ancestry, this isn’t news. Immigrants from these groups know all too well what it is like to be needed for one’s labor, but despised for one’s presence. We’ve been down this road before. Recall the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, halting new Japanese immigration in exchange for non-discrimination against those of Japanese descent already in the U.S., as examples of racist immigration practices in America’s past. Arizona’s SB1070 is not unique in our history. What is different now is that this treatment is now being directed to children too.

The current immigration debate focusing on Latinos is no different from our past. Whether one is a proponent of earned citizenship through some time of amnesty, tougher border enforcement either by building fences or militarizing the border, a proponent of another guest worker program, or is engaged in the on-going debate about whether immigrants cost or benefit society, Latinos in America are experiencing prejudice, discrimination, cruelty and mistreatment from this latest round of scapegoating. The bottom line is that the 50 million Latinos in this country—16.3 percent of the population according to a new Pew Hispanic Report, are not accepted or seen as real Americans, regardless of our legal or professional status as discussed in a forthcoming book on Latino professionals. The current debate on immigration underscores this fact.

People need to remember some fundamental American values, such as the Golden Rule and what it means to walk in the footsteps of another. If we can honestly put ourselves in immigrants shoes, we may see that most of us would make the same decisions that undocumented workers have made. Regardless of the law, we would make the sacrifices necessary to do the best we can for our families. For example, try to sincerely imagine living in an agricultural community that, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has suffered tremendous financial hardship. Local corn, grown there for generations, can no longer compete against the corn imports from the United States, which are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. To clothe your children, your wife has taken to sewing their underwear out of old flour sacks. Your children lack shoes. Your family eats little protein, maybe once a week. Meals mostly consist of “chicken” soup, without the chicken — a watery broth of tortillas or rice and beans. The only hope seems to be to go work in the U.S. While it breaks your heart to leave your children behind, knowing your youngest may not even remember who you are upon your return and knowing your older ones need you to learn life’s lessons, you make the only rational decision a family-centered person can. You give up everything and join the countless numbers of people who have left their communities empty of working-aged men.

Not many of us could sit back and watch our children or elderly parents suffer hunger and destitution without doing something to ease their suffering and improve their lives. Missing from so much of the immigration debate is the humanity of the undocumented immigrants who are making sacrifices such as being separated from their children often for years, or being away and unable to return if a parent dies. These are sacrifices most of us cannot even imagine.

It is only through an understanding of the complex circumstances that lead people to migrate that we can create a much-needed constructive, humane, realistic, and just immigration policy. Blaming undocumented immigrants is not the answer. As Michele Wucker states in her book Lockout, “The population of immigrants who are in this country without legal papers did not grow to more than 10 million people without America’s full participation in the legal charade.”

Instead of focusing on the unjust immigration laws, politicians, political pundits, and anti-immigrant advocates have hypocritically taken the stance that undocumented workers are “lawbreakers” who need to learn to “follow the rules” and “do it the right way.”

They should take note that laws can be, and are often, wrong. When half the American population could not vote until 1920, were women wrong to demand the law changed?

Instead of hiding behind the façade of law, we should remember the humanity of undocumented immigrants. We all lose when we discriminate against one another. We are a better country than to require children to prove residency status in order for them to go to school. Targeting children is not the answer.

Intentional Impoverishment: Washington and the National Trend

What kind of community burdens the least advantaged? What kind of community makes those that are already suffering the most suffer more? The answer is one that is extremely shortsighted—one that neither focuses on justice nor on the next generation. According to a new report by the Washington Community Action Network called, “The Color of Cuts: The Disproportionate Impact of Budget Cuts on Communities of Color in Washington State”, the state of Washington, where one in five residents is a person of color and one in ten residents is an immigrant, is one of these communities. The report argues that state budget cuts will have a disproportionately negative affect on people of color in a state that already has significant racial disparities. Some of the indicators of current racial disparities highlighted in the report include the following:

According to the Education Trust and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington State is ranked in the bottom-five of all states when it comes to closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap. At its current pace it will take 45 to 50 years to close the gap between students of color and their White counterparts.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in the fourth quarter of 2010 unemployment for Whites was 8.5 percent. This was considerably lower than unemployment rates among Latinos or African Americans, 12.9 percent and 15.8 percent respectively.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African American men and women are much more likely to die of heart disease and stroke than their White counterparts. This is despite the existence of low-cost, highly effective preventive treatment.

According to Washington State’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, youth of color comprise 45 percent of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration population despite comprising only 27 percent of the state’s youth population.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the third quarter of 2010 the homeownership rate for African Americans was just 45 percent. The homeownership rate for Latinos was 47 percent, while the homeownership rate for Whites was 75 percent.

According to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, people of color in Washington State are far more likely to be living in poverty than non-Hispanic Whites” (p. 4).

The Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs 2009 Assessment reported that median annual earnings in 2007 for Hispanics was $20,238 a year, for blacks it was $25,298 a year, and for whites was $32,482. These numbers are very similar to the figures put out by the Pew Hispanic Center for 2009. The Commission on Hispanic Affairs 2009 Assessment further indicated that 31% of Hispanic children under 17 years of age are living in poverty, 33% of black children are living in poverty, and 10% of white children are living in poverty.

Many people are hurting across the nation during these difficult economic times, especially people of color. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that state legislators pursue a utilitarian approach to policy making. However, one has to wonder how much different our society would look if they pursued a more Rawlsian approach—one that replaced “the greatest good for the greatest number” conception with Rawls’ belief that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions”. The Rawlsian liberal egalitarian theory of justice sets forth the notion of a society that is established under the veil of ignorance and spelled out in a contract that is public and has clear limits and conditions. According to Rawls, justice would result from collective decision rules that rational people operating under a veil of ignorance would choose in formulating a contract system of government. Rawls believes that “each person in the original position should care about the well-being of some of those in the next generation.” According to Rawls, a just society must have equality of opportunity through perfect procedural justice. He provides an example of perfect procedural justice with in the situation of an individual dividing a cake and picking his piece last. For Rawls injustice is a state in which inequalities do not benefit everyone in society. This describes the budget in Washington state and probably many other states as well. Some of the programs that will be cut or eliminated include: a 300% increase in premiums for people in Apple Health for Kids, a 50% reduction in the State Food Assistance Program, a 1.5 million dollar cut in Refuge Employment Services, the consolidation of the various Ethnic Commissions, and the elimination of the New American Program. Unfortunately, until we can agree to “share one another’s fate” as Rawls would call us to do, people of color and the poor will feel the burdens of state cuts more than anyone else. The results of these cuts will be with us for generations.

Education as a Community Resource for People of Color

American schools are failing so many students, especially people of color as shown in the documentary Waiting for Superman Latinos comprise 14 percent of the U.S. populations,asts put Latinos at 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2050. America is an increasingly multicultural society. How well America welcomes people who are from distinct racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds will in large part determine just how democratic America remains.

And Some I Wish I'd Never Seen At All, Plate 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk

If Americans fail to accept the largest ethnic and racial group in the country then not only is it critical to ask how well America is living up to its ideals, but most importantly, the issue becomes, as political scientist García Bedolla states: “whether our democracy is creating a more just society.” This is an important point because democracy does not necessarily equal justice, so we may have a democratic society that is far from just for many, particularly for minorities.

Latinos are greatly underrepresented in professional occupations, comprising only three to four percent of engineers, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and elementary and high school teachers. According to Richard Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, as of August 2010, there are only fifteen Latino CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, and most of these fifteen come from elite immigrant families. According to a Pew Hispanic Center report

Some 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

Improving educational levels for Latinos are important for three main reasons: (1) the strength of our democracy depends on a well-educated and committed citizenry. Because Latinos are an increasing part of society, it is important to our country that Latinos be full and equal members of it. (2) The ability to be able to live and achieve the most you can in your life begins with being able to pursue the training and education needed to do so. Personal fulfillment and economic security are critically connected to educational access. (3) The benefits of increasing educational levels among Latinos are not only important for you but for future generations as well. Education is key in improving the quality of life in Latino communities and for society.

As Cesar Chávez said in 1984:

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

Education is key to improving the quality of life in Latino communities for generations. Educational opportunities for successive generations only works because others have paved the way. For example, in Passing the Torch, Attewell and Lavin study the impact of higher education on the next generation of “non-traditional” students, (mostly poor and minority) who attended the eighteen-campus City University of New York, which guaranteed enrollment to New York City high school graduates beginning in the 1970s. Attewell and Lavin convincingly document that the “democratization of public higher education….is the first step up the ladder of social mobility, and…generates an upward mobility” for the children of college educated mothers.

Education is a vital community resource for people of color.

Washington: No In-State Tuition for Immigrants, Then No Sales Taxes

State Senate Republican ranking minority member of Financial Institutions Housing and Insurance Committee, Don Benton has just dropped a bill (Senate Bill 5828) that would deny undocumented resident students of Washington in-state tuition and state financial aid at state universities.

This is a terrible policy idea on many counts. At a time when engineering programs at the University of Washington are turning away half of qualified applicants because of budget cuts, having an easy scapegoat for the problems in our state universities is typical. Why not blame undocumented immigrants for the crisis in higher education? Many of my students actually believe they are to blame for our failing health care system and for our economy as well thanks to conservative news media outlets.

Political Science Professor at the University of Washington, Luis Fraga states

Public policy is the primary way in which Americans have always demonstrated their commitment to each other.

Unfortunately, our commitments to each other are increasingly commitments of hate and hostility, especially targeted against some of our most vulnerable members of society. Hate is not only becoming a normalized part of our political dialogue at all levels of government, but it is now increasingly becoming public policy as well.

However, this bill is also highly hypocritical from a financial perspective. Washington State is one of the few states that does not have a state income tax. So, the largest portion of individual taxes paid (as opposed to business taxes) are paid for through sales taxes and fees on government services. This means that undocumented residents pay sales taxes just as much as anybody else. These taxes go towards funding higher education, among other things. If Senate Bill 5828 is successful this means that undocumented state residents will be denied the benefit of the taxes for which they contribute to. Perhaps Represented Benton would be willing to amend our tax system to exempt undocumented state residents from paying sales taxes too, just like we except non-state residents from Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho who shop here!

The Latino Vote: Impact and Future

What will the impact of the Latino vote be in future elections? Their impact in the 2010 midterm elections provides some insight. We’ve seen the first election where the non-Cuban Latino vote has swung very much in a different direction than the “average voter.” In other words, independents swung towards Republicans in this election. Latinos did not. If anything, Latinos swung more towards Democrats. What does this tell us for the future? Latinos will not be able to be ignored quite so easily by either party.

The Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted in ways they have taken the black constituency for granted. According to Paul Frymer, African Americans have been “captured” by the Democratic party. Because African Americans are a loyal Democratic base, they do not get courted by the Democratic party the way they would if they tended to shift towards the Republican party. According to Nate Silver the 2010 midterm elections were about deepening partisanship rather than realignments of any kind, so Silver contends that Democrats will be in a position to make some modest gains in 2012. However, in my estimation, Silver’s analysis will only be true if the Democrats do not ignore Latinos in 2012.

The Republicans face a demographic problem as the Latino electorate grows. More and more states will become out of reach for them, including big states like California and some day Texas if they can’t figure out a way to appeal to Latino voters. According to Angela Kelley, Marshall Fitz, and Gebe Martinez of The Center for American Progress:

Latino voters…protected incumbent senators in Nevada, Colorado, and California and decided the balance of power in the upper chamber. Their vote also affected governors’ races in several states where they turned out in strong numbers for Democrats who defended them. Also noteworthy, they were decidedly cooler toward Republican Latino candidates who didn’t stand strongly in support of immigration reform.

They go on to state:

A major reason why Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats this year is that Republicans were viewed by the community as embracing harsh policies like the Arizona law and opposing common sense measures like the DREAM Act. That will have to change if Republicans want to take over the White House in 2012 from President Obama, who understands the political clout of the Latino vote.”

Latinos represent 19 million eligible voters according to the Pew Research Center. They also preferred Democrats to Republicans in the 2010 midterm election (64% to 34% respectively.

Latinos are not a homogenous group. They can be of any race; they can be first generation Americans, or from families dating back to the U.S. for five generations or more; they are culturally diverse group with origins from many different Latin American countries all with unique historical connections in the United States. However, there are some generalizations worth making: their policy needs are not being addressed by either party and they share experiences that link them to both parties. Both political parties must start appealing to Latino voters.

But will this happen in the 2012 election? It would be wise for both political parties to begin paying more attention to Latino voters. It would be even wiser if Latino interests such as employment opportunities, poverty, education, immigration issues, housing, and civil rights policies were incorporated into policy agendas. When some of the issues begin to be incorporated systematically into either party’s agenda then Latinos will see that their needs and their future in America matters. As the largest racial and ethnic group in the country, we are as the saying goes, in this together. And Latinos will continue to flex their electoral muscle and make a difference as the 2010 midterm elections demonstrate.

Another Ad Attacking Latino Immigrants: Senator Vitter Appeals to White Racism

Political ads such as David Vitter’s new anti-immigrant ad are not only misleading, but they are immoral.

This ad, similar to Sharon Angle’s anti-immigrant ad against Harry Reid, is racist, reprehensible, and unfortunately effective. If this type of scapegoating were not effective, political strategists wouldn’t utilize them. It makes me wonder what needs to change to make this kind of hatred become ineffective, and then subsequently fade from the political process.

Political science professor John Geer argues in his book, In Defense of Negativity that negative campaigns, at least with regards to presidential elections, are positive for the political process and for democracy. Geer contends negative ads provide information about opponents’ weaknesses that help voters make choices, as well as motivate Americans to go to the polls. In short, according to Geer, negative ads contribute to a healthier democracy, even if not a more civil one.

However, the problem with Geer’s rosy view of negative ads is that he fails to consider the effect on the groups being targeted beyond the politician who is being trashed. Geer fails to acknowledge the consequences of how Americans can feel justified—dare I saw vindicated—in their xenophobia and/or racist views towards the latest target of scapegoating for all that is wrong with society when negative ads such as the current ones by Vitter or Angle reinforce irrational fears. One wonders if candidates elected with the assistance of messages of racial hated will be more inclined to support policies with similar animi.

As a Latina who has grown up being viewed as a foreigner at best and a criminal illegal at worst, this stigma can be quite harmful. Who cares if more people will vote in a particular election with more erroneous information? So, maybe negative ads do increase participation, offer misguided choices, and improve the overall health of democracy (if one defines any participation, even ignorant participation as a positive) as Geer maintains. The cost to our civic discourse, or to the quality of our democracy, which in this instance is the acceptance into the mainstream of public discourse of racism against Latinos is not worth it. These costs need to be considered in any analysis that justifies negative ads, particularly ads like the recent anti-Latino ads.

Is there a public policy solution that would reduce the effectiveness of these racist political ads, and then reduce their use? Nothing obvious or easy. Well, if the public becomes less racist towards Latinos (I’m not going to hold my breath) or if Latinos become an effective voting bloc and make it political suicide for any politician to consider approving (even tacitly approving) and airing such ads, then perhaps yes. As the largest ethnic and racial minority group in America, with projections to become at least a quarter of the population by 2050, until Latinos become an effective voting bloc (at least a bloc voting against this kind of treatment, even if not a bloc in the traditional partisan sense), this kind of ad will not change. Because if Latinos wait for the willingness of white voters to ignore racist appeals I think we will be waiting a very long time.

How Do We Make A Better Constitution?

Next Friday, September 17th Americans will be celebrating Constitution Day, a holiday established by the late Senator Byrd in 2004 which requires all educational institutions that receive federal money to honor the day in which the Constitution was signed. For some people this day is a time to celebrate, have parades, and to generally feel proud of our system of constitutional government and America itself. While there is a lot to be proud of, for example the Framers of the constitution created a document that set up our governing legal principles, which have remained (with a few important changes) political stable since the Civil War. However, having yearly discussions about the Constitution centered on the day of its signing requires more of us than flag waving or listening to patriotic speeches. As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated in his remarks in 1987, which marked the bicentennial of the constitution:

Patriotic feelings will surely swell, prompting proud proclamations of the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice shared by the Framers and reflected in a written document now yellowed with age. This is unfortunate–not the patriotism itself, but the tendency for the celebration to oversimplify, and overlook the many other events that have been instrumental to our achievements as a nation. The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy. I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.

Marshall then goes on to list important evolutionary changes to what “We the people” meant in 1787 and at later dates in American history. This includes the fact that blacks, women, and the poor could not participate in the conception of “we the people” not even in civic rights as basic as voting in 1787. For those who argue that the Constitution was simply a construction of its times, Marshall has this to say:

…the effects of the Framers’ compromise have remained for generations….It took a bloody civil war before the l3th Amendment could be adopted to abolish slavery, though not the consequences slavery would have for future Americans.

As Marshall points out, after the Civil War, the Constitution was profoundly changed especially with the important addition of the 14th amendment. He adds:

In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. And yet almost another century would pass before any significant recognition was obtained of the rights of black Americans to share equally even in such basic opportunities as education, housing, and employment, and to have their votes counted, and counted equally. In the meantime, blacks joined America’s military to fight its wars and invested untold hours working in its factories and on its farms, contributing to the development of this country’s magnificent wealth and waiting to share in its prosperity.

According to Marshall, the importance of examining the Constitution from a critical perspective is the role that it has had in determining the status of blacks in America. He states,

What is striking is the role legal principles have played throughout America’s history in determining the condition of Negroes. They were enslaved by law, emancipated by law, disenfranchised and segregated by law; and, finally, they have begun to win equality by law. Along the way, new constitutional principles have emerged to meet the challenges of a changing society. The progress has been dramatic, and it will continue.

Rather than looking at our bicentennial as a day to celebrate the Framers, Marshall argues that the credit for the important changes that made the Constitution better do not belong with the Framers. Rather he states, “It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of “liberty,” “justice,” and “equality,” and who strived to better them.” In his concluding remarks on the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution he argues:

And so we must be careful, when focusing on the events which took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective….If we seek, instead, a sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history, the celebration of the “Miracle at Philadelphia” will, in my view, be a far more meaningful and humbling experience. We will see that the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making….I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.

Similarly to Marshall’s critical reflection of the bicentennial of the Constitution, I believe Constitution Day is a day to reflecting on current notions of liberty, justice, and equality as found in our most significant legal document that has established our governing principles and structure for 223 years now. I believe the purpose of Constitution Day is to spend some time reflecting on the important constitutional questions and issues of the day. So, today I’d like to ask the question: How do we make a better Constitution for all Americans? Stated differently, what do we have left to do to truly create a better democracy in America? If we would like to continue to live up to our dearest beliefs we must continually find ways to improve our society with expanded notions of “we the people” in America. So, during Constitution day I ask us to consider what we still have left to do to improve upon our ideals and principles as a nation? In thinking about how we make a better Constitution, I would like to focus on two points. First, how do we expand liberty and justice through contemporary public policy issues with constitutional implications? Second, how do we make the interpretation of our Constitution more representative of American society?

First, it is important to examine which parts of our society aren’t working very well right now and to consider the extent that the structure and content of our constitution contribute to the dysfunction. Looking at ways to expand our values of liberty and justice for us all by focusing on public policy priorities, it helps to begin with a definition of public policy. Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Russell F. Stark University Professor at the University of Washington, Luis Fraga states, “(p)ublic policy is the primary way in which Americans have always demonstrated their commitment to each other.” What should some of these commitments to each other entail?In 1944 Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered this and proposed a Second Bill of Rights which focused on increasing opportunity and security for all Americans. FDR stated:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed.

For FDR this included: The right to a good job that allows one to earn enough to have the basic necessities to live a good life. It also included the right to a good education, where one’s children could go to school free to learn and not burdened by poverty, hunger, or fear of violence. It also included fair business practices for entrepreneurs large and small, and the right to adequate medical care, and a decent home for all families. These are just a few of the goals FDR proposed in his Second Bill of Rights just months before he died. While it is another conversation to see just how these ideas could be written into the Constitution if FDR had lived to push his policies through, and even harder to determine how these public policy commitments would be implemented and later interpreted, they are still ideals worth discussing. For example, what does it say about our current notions of justice and equality that we still largely have a Constitution based on the beliefs that opportunity and security are about some sort of “survival of the fittest” notion? For example what does our Constitution say about the right of education? Nothing. In other countries with the capacity to do so, there is a greater commitment to economic and social rights than in the US. For example, the European Social Charter, rewritten in 1996 includes the right to housing, health, education, employment, legal and social protection, and non-discrimination to name a few.
These important questions were being asked by our 32 president who believed we must keep improving our commitments and values to one another through our Constitution with a Second Bill of Rights.
Another way to consider how to make our Constitution better is to expand the interpretation of what it means. Stated differently, how can the meaning of the Constitution include perspectives from more than just the 98 percent elite white male input that has gone into it thus far? Marbury vs Madison established judicial review by the Supreme Court. Yet, who has made up the Supreme Court throughout our history? How many ordinary Americans, especially the white working class, women, and people of color have ever had real representation of their experiences and views on the Supreme Court? Shouldn’t we be a little concerned that we are so lacking in representation in our most powerful unelected political body? One way to make our Constitution better is to have the current interpretation of our most important constitutional questions be more representative, at a minimum if we are to be a real democracy. Surely we can find excellent legal minds among ordinary folks who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieved a university and then later a legal education. It shouldn’t take an exclusively ivy league path (which is as much a reflection of parents’ socioeconomic status as it is of talent and ability) to play a part in this important institution. Since our founding we have only had three people of color ever sit on our most powerful and unelected political body. Only one woman of color, no Asians, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, black women, etc….. This is the body that interprets and extends the Constitution for the modern era. Yet it is still 67 percent white men, and white men only make up 35 percent of the US population now. So, the supreme court is a very unrepresentative body, and this is the body interpreting the Constitution for the contemporary era.

In attempting to articulate the elements of how to make a better Constitution, I’m really talking about how to make a more just, equitable, and inclusive society. Looking to our original principles that have characterize our nations can provide the building blocks on which we can continue to improve America. My ideas for a better Constitution are based on the belief that we can continue to make society better through sound policy commitments such as detailed by FDR and through making the supreme court justices charged with determining not only how to interpret the Constitution but what issues to focus on be more representative of America.

We have come a long way from what was established by the Framers 223 years ago in our Constitution. “We the people” now includes more of us than ever before. Yet we still have a long way to go for full social and political incorporation—especially among the poor, immigrants, and among people of color. The principles of “establishing justice,” or “the blessings of liberty” that are found in the preamble of the Constitution are really good ones. However, we must have the wisdom and courage to continue to seek ways to improve our government, our legal structure, our commitments to one another by extending the promise of them to more people in our society. It is my hope that my students, my children, and new immigrants to our community will live in a country that continues to strive for improvement. As long as we do this critically and lovingly we have a good reason to be proud to call America our home.