On one side are many of my political, business, and religious friends who correctly argue that we need to remove racist language from the thoroughly racist 1901 Constitution. As Republican state senator Arthur Orr, author of Amendment 4, stated, “I find it offensive … that it’s still in my state’s governing document.” I agree.
But I do find it curious that Orr only finds the language offensive, not the racist policies which gave rise to the language. Furthermore, I find it amazing that he has endorsed Roy Moore as Supreme Court chief justice, the very Republican who mobilized a coalition that defeated the last attempt to remove the same racist language.
Why Orr’s change of heart? Well, it has lots to do with deleting the offensive language, which has been made legally meaningless anyway because federal dourts struck it down, while leaving in tact racist policies that will cripple Alabama for decades.
Other friends — in AEA, black political leaders, other religious friends—argue that the key to understanding the differences in the sides of the dime is found in what was included in the amendment last time compared to this time. The amendment that Roy Moore’s forces killed (and for which I voted) proposed not only to remove the racist language that shames Alabama but also the racist policy that Alabama legislators almost unanimously added to our Constitution two years after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954.
Desperately trying to keep black students separate from whites and unequal, legislators voted and citizens passed an amendment that said the state did not guarantee any child the right to a public education. Now if you think we have a problem with bad language, try recruiting a Korean company like Hyundai or Kia by telling them their children who relocate here are not guaranteed a public education. Watch Koreans run!
In terms of practical consequences, returning to the original language of the 1901 Constitution which guaranteed a “liberal system of public schools for the benefit of every child … between the ages of seven and twenty-one years” would mean we might have to fund public schools at close to the same rate per child as Mississippi. That would cost us approximately $1 billion more annually in new taxes. Which is the reason Moore and his cohort opposed the last amendment to strip the Constitution of both racist language and policy.
If Republican leaders are correct when they tell us that racist constitutional language cripples economic development, I need some help with their other messages. They keep telling us that anti-union policies, low corporate taxes, minimal state regulation and state tax incentives (which we are being asked to increase in another amendment in November) have made Alabama a Mecca for companies that can’t wait to relocate here. Indeed, every year they trumpet SITE SELECTION magazine’s list of the most business- friendly states. Turns out Alabama wins more national championships in that magazine than we do in the NCAA. Apparently the racist language that the courts have overturned has not hurt us too much.
What imperils Alabama’s future is not language. It is chronic under-funding of public schools. It is an increasingly large pool of indigent students, an unprepared labor force unable to compete successfully in a global economy, a frightful high school drop-out rate, high school students not prepared for college and many of our brightest college graduates who leave Alabama for better careers elsewhere as soon as they graduate.
After often switching sides during the past six months, I finally decided to vote against Amendment 4, though I agree with its intent. I vote “no” because we need to have a serious conversation about the pernicious policies of our racial past, not about its hateful language.
Wayne Flynt is a distinguished university professor emeritus at Auburn University.