This article is part of Prism's Election 2020: What's at Stake coverage.
Racial justice has been an inescapable issue for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, and the headline-making killings of unarmed Black people leading up to the death of George Floyd in police custody are only the most recent instances forcing the issue to the forefront of American life. Those deaths caused another watershed moment for the country in the spring, and discussions surrounding institutionalized racism are refusing to give way to pressures to “return to normal life.”
The awakening of some Americans around racial justice came in the midst of racist rhetoric and incendiary policies by the Trump administration, which has helped overt white supremacy make a comeback in mainstream politics. This has resulted in a rise in hate crime violence, immigrant children being separated from their parents with little hope of reuniting, and a surge in white nationalists who feel emboldened to violently act out. Now, during a contentious election time, some voters have the opportunity to respond to the racist narratives being shouted from the top and refute white supremacy with the stroke of their pen.
A recent study by Pew Research Center found that 34% of Americans believe the racial justice protests will result in a major change in the way people think about racism. Putting an end to institutionalized racism—which is deeply embedded in our laws and institutions—involves individually striking down discriminatory practices and policies that exist within our culture.
Though widespread protests have brought a heightened awareness surrounding race relations, the way people vote on some ballot initiatives this election cycle could offer insight into how much the national dialogue around race has resonated with voters. In addition to deciding on the country’s next president—which will also illuminate where Americans place racial justice on their list of importance—voters around the country will also be faced with several racial justice initiatives, some of which, if passed, will directly impact the lives of marginalized communities.
From affirmative action to state Constitution updates to removing Confederate symbols, here are some racial justice initiatives on the ballot this election.
California’s Proposition 16 would repeal the state’s 24-year ban on affirmative action, allowing race and gender as a factor in hiring and college admissions. The proposition has been supported by some of California’s most prominent politicians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Kamala Harris. It also has the backing of racial justice groups like Black Lives Matter, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the NAACP. Supporters say overturning the ban would help provide equal opportunities for disadvantaged communities and give them a leg up. Opponents believe that rather than improving diversity, the law would instead provide quotas and that more qualified candidates would be sidelined.
In Mississippi, Ballot Measure 3 would adopt a new state flag free of Confederate symbols that has been designed by the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi Flag. Voters will have the opportunity to approve or reject the new flag, which will be displayed as an image on their ballots. If voters reject the redesign, they’ll have another opportunity to vote on a new flag during a special election next November. The newly proposed state flag is already flying in at the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany.
Rhode Island’s Question 1, or Name Change Amendment, would change the state’s official name by removing “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” references from the Preamble, Article III, and Article IX of the state’s constitution. Instead, the name would be changed to “State of Rhode Island.”
There are two states with similar amendments on the ballot—Nebraska and Utah—that involve completely outlawing slavery. Slavery is still technically legal in a handful of states, with specific conditions.
In Nebraska, Article 1’s Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment would repeal what is referred to as the “exception clause” in the state’s Constitution, which permits involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment. Supporters say it’s time to update Nebraska’s constitution and ban slavery in all circumstances. In modern times, no Nebraska judge has sentenced anyone to be a slave, but the existence of the clause has left Nebraskans surprised it still existed.
“The number one reaction I get from voters is shocked,” said Treasurer of Vote for Eliminating Slavery in Nebraska Malia Cohen, in an interview with 1011 NOW. “They assume this is something we took care of a long time ago and the fact is we didn’t.”
Utah’s Constitutional Amendment C, which is nearly identical to Nebraska’s Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment, is backed in a bipartisan effort by Democrat Rep. Sandra Hollins and Republican Sen. Jacob Anderegg. Hollins is the chief sponsor of the bill.
"Regardless of how we feel about the criminal justice system, it should be clear that it shouldn’t be slavery,” Hollins said in a 2018 press release. “The notion of ‘slavery or involuntary servitude’ should not be imposed on people merely because they are convicted of a crime. By passing this measure we will assert that slavery is not a Utah value.”
Past efforts to remove language from state constitutions that permit slavery have been successful. In 2018, Colorado voters approved Amendment A, which removed language from the state Constitution that permitted slavery as a form of criminal punishment.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, most of the racial justice issues plaguing the country won’t be solved at the ballot box. With ongoing xenophobia, attacks against immigrants and refugees, police violence targeting Black and brown communities, and the current wave of anti-Asian racism, one initiative can’t solve all the problems. However, small, incremental improvements can be made over time to achieve racial justice. Voting on measures aimed at correcting past wrongs or creating more racial equity is a great place to start.
Prism is covering what's at stake in the 2020 elections on the issues that matter most to our communities, including electoral justice, immigration, criminal justice, environmental justice, gender justice, and workers’ rights. Dive into the rest of our coverage here.
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