Walker Rolls Back Civil Rights
Walker has signed into law dozens of measures that systematically dismantle the institutions and practices that have served as the foundation for civil rights in the state. More than any other group, African Americans in Wisconsin are going to feel the brunt.
The hard-won gains of civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s—voting rights, fair housing, equal access to quality public education, decent jobs, and anti-discrimination laws—are all under attack by the Walker administration and his allies in the Republican-controlled state senate and assembly. From a constitutionally questionable voter ID law to the wholesale gutting of public education and the repeal of anti-racial profiling legislation, Republicans are leaving no stone unturned in their zeal to roll back all manner of progressive policy and democratic practice.
“Jim Crow, move over, the Wisconsin Republicans have taken your place,” said state Democratic senator Bob Jauch during debate on the voter ID law that requires voters to present a specific form of photo identification with a current address. The law also extends the residency period from ten to twenty-eight days before one can vote in a particular ward.
Milwaukee lawmakers are quick to point out that this disproportionately disenfranchises their constituents.
“This bill has a chilling effect on the vote of the majority,” state senator Spencer Coggs said during a truncated and chaotic debate on the bill. “But when the majority gets a chill, the African American community in the state of Wisconsin gets pneumonia.”
Republican legislators also drew up highly partisan Congressional and state legislative redistricting maps in secret, and rammed them through the legislature within ten days of unveiling them to the public. In a classic gerrymandering “pack and stack” move, African American and Latino voters in Milwaukee are crammed into fewer solidly Democratic districts. Said state senator Lena Taylor of the maps: “This is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Walker’s systematic divestment from K-12 public education will also disproportionately affect minorities.
“The majority party is forgetting that there is a little thing called the state constitution that says that all children have a right to free, quality public education,” says state representative Tamara Grigsby, a member of the Joint Finance Committee. “The $1.6 billion in budget cuts to education will have the most impact on areas that already don’t have access to what they need.”
“This budget sets back kids at least a generation,” adds state senator Coggs. “This is the first time we haven’t put at least some increase in funding for education. It sets up some very negative outcomes for kids of color.”
Walker’s most high-profile assault on the people of Wisconsin has been against public sector workers. Wisconsin Act 10, the so-called Budget Repair Bill that brought tens of thousands of people into the streets and into the capitol for three straight weeks last spring, eliminates meaningful collective bargaining with public sector unions and forces austerity measures—such as increased employee contributions to pension and health insurance plans—on state, county, and municipal workers. This, too, has a racial edge.
According to a recent study by Steven Pitts of the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, the public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans. “During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers,” the report said. “The public sector is a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black Americans.”
In Wisconsin, these trends are similar.
“Black people depend upon public sector employment to a greater extent than any other group in Wisconsin,” says Bill Franks, equal opportunity officer at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
The most overtly racist move by Walker was to gut the recently enacted law against racial profiling.
In 1999, Governor Tommy Thompson convened a task force on racial profiling which recommended that local law enforcement agencies improve complaint procedures, gather data, and conduct in-service trainings to prevent racial profiling. Eight years later, Governor Jim Doyle created the Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System. The findings of that commission were translated into an executive order and finally into a law that mandated data collection on traffic stops as a small step toward addressing the issue of racial profiling.
No sooner had that law gone into effect than Republicans drafted another bill to not only repeal the state-mandated data collection, but actually prohibit local law enforcement agencies from collecting data for purposes of studying the issue of racial profiling in traffic stops or any other situations in which people come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Representative Grigsby served on Governor Doyle’s commission. During debate on the assembly floor she reflected on that experience: “This was a very well thought-out attempt to address a real racial justice issue. Why wouldn’t we want to examine our practices when we have some of the highest rates of disproportionate minority confinement in the country? Are you afraid of finding out that racism might be real? This bill erases years of work and progress in creating a more racially just state.”
She added: “It is unbelievable that such a large body of people could have such disregard for others’ civil rights. I challenge the authors of this bill to explain how making it acceptable to target, harass, and profile people based on the color of their skin is part of the common good.”
This is an excerpt from Rebecca Kemble's cover story in the September issue. To read the whole story, and the entire issue, simply subscribe today for $14.97--that's 75% off the newsstand price! Just click here.
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