The monument stood in Birmingham for decades as a twisted tribute to Alabama’s original sins: slavery and white supremacy. It “honored” a violent rebellion that sought to protect the enslavement of human beings. During segregation and Jim Crow and civil rights protests and into the 21st century, it served as a daily 52-foot-tall reminder of the systemic oppression and persecution of Black Alabamians.
That monument is finally gone now. After protests, the city pulled it down June 1, on a state holiday named for the political leader of the rebellion it commemorated. Removing physical symbols of slavery and segregation is an important step toward healing and recovery, but it’s not enough. We also must tear down prejudices, disparities and injustices that trace their roots to these oppressive and racist practices. To do that, Alabama must enact public policies that undermine white supremacy and promote dignity, equity and justice for everyone.
The need for racial justice
For more than 30 years, Alabama Arise has worked to make life better for struggling Alabamians through better public policy. It’s impossible to do that work effectively without acknowledging and challenging our state’s historical and ongoing racial inequities. There can be no economic or social justice without racial justice. And as scholar Ibram X. Kendi said, policy cannot be merely non-racist; it must be anti-racist. That’s why we’re committed to placing racial equity and inclusion at the core of our work.
Black Alabamians have battled generation after generation of discriminatory barriers to education, jobs, housing and voting. Compounding those barriers is a criminal justice system that polices Black people more heavily, arrests them more often and condemns them to harsher sentences in dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails.
For centuries, Black people have suffered from police brutality and unequal treatment from law enforcement. This history has fueled protests across the country and around the world over the last week. Arise stands in solidarity with calls to stop killing Black people and start building a world that’s safe for everyone.
All of these systemic failures have added together to produce a series of terrible, ongoing disparities. Black people in our state face higher rates of poverty and hunger, lower life expectancies and lower rates of employment and health insurance coverage.
Policy changes to break down harmful barriers
These are institutional failures that require policy solutions. Here a few ways lawmakers can help break down barriers to opportunity and justice:
- Expand Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes. Expansion would ensure health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians who are uninsured or barely paying for insurance they can’t really afford. It also would attack a fundamental injustice: People of color make up about 34% of our state’s population, but nearly half of all uninsured Alabamians with low incomes are people of color. Lack of affordable health coverage deprives Black people of timely care for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions. As the disproportionately high share of coronavirus deaths among Black Alabamians shows, health care access is literally a matter of life or death.
- Invest more in public education. Alabama’s state funding for K-12 and higher education, adjusted for inflation, is lower today than it was in 2008. This chronic underfunding hits many schools that primarily serve Black students especially hard.
- Equitably distribute funding for affordable housing and public transportation. Alabama has trust funds for both but hasn’t funded them yet. Lawmakers should fund public transportation to help everyone get to work, school and other places they need to go. Alabama should support the Housing Trust Fund to ensure people living in deep poverty have safe shelter. Our state also should commit to eliminating redlining, fighting housing discrimination and proactively reducing residential segregation.
- Overhaul the criminal justice system and the death penalty. Areas with large Black populations often see a larger police presence. The weight of harsh sentences and criminal justice debt falls more heavily on these Alabamians as a result. Lawmakers should reform sentencing laws and ease the crushing burden of exorbitant fines and fees. They also need to end abuses of civil asset forfeiture and eliminate racial injustice in the state’s death penalty system.
- Strengthen and expand voting rights. Voting barriers should find no home in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration are a few changes that would make voting more accessible. Alabama also should ease barriers to voting rights restoration.
- Raise the minimum wage and restore home rule to localities. Alabama is one of only five states with no minimum wage law. Birmingham tried to raise its minimum wage in 2016, but state lawmakers blocked that effort. The Legislature has that power due to the 1901 state constitution, whose authors explicitly said the document aimed to “establish white supremacy in this state.” Alabama should lift constitutional barriers to home rule and allow local governments to make decisions in their own communities.
A better, more inclusive future for Alabama
Undoing the legacies of slavery and segregation in Alabama will require more than reassuring words and vague platitudes. It will require substantive policy changes to break down centuries-old barriers and ensure all Alabamians have a chance to reach their full potential.
Many of these changes – and others not mentioned above – won’t be easy. Some of them may not happen quickly. But we must keep advocating and working toward the day when they will. The road to dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians remains a long one. But walking together and working together, we can and will reach that destination.