Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Racial Justice

James Skillen


June 23, 1997

John Hope Franklin, who will chair President Clinton's advisory panel on race, says that the problem of this century has been race.

The New York Times editors (June 16) applauded President Clinton's speech at the University of California at San Diego for putting "the nation's most important social problem where it belongs, at the top of the national agenda."

Russell Baker, on the other hand, wonders "why the President thinks we lack dialogue on race. A roaring dialogue on race has been going on here for 350 years." (NYT, June 17).

The question really comes down to this: What shall we talk about and how shall we talk about it? Baker is correct that Americans have been conducting a conversation—often violent—about race for most of our history. The new advisory panel on race plans to develop proposals for expanded educational, housing and economic opportunities, all designed to help overcome discrimination. Will these proposals start a new conversation or simply demonstrate that nothing new can be said or done about racial justice? Why does the president see his office as one for promoting a conversation rather than for ensuring that structures are in place to administer justice?

If Americans are really going to do something about racial justice, two issues should be placed at the center of the discussion. Let's talk about making it possible for all minority groups to gain equal access to the most important means of social, economic, and political power, namely, equal choice in schooling and proportional representation in Congress and state legislatures.

The laws governing education today give those with financial means many choices of schools, ranging from the choice of residence in a good school district to the purchase of private education. The poor—many of whom are racial minorities—have little or no choice. Free and equal education is a myth, not a reality in America. Let the president and his advisory panel join the conversation about how to provide equal funding and equal choice of schools to all citizens. Let's work to overcome discrimination built into our current system of education that denies choice to those who need it most.

Let's also talk about real electoral representation for all citizens. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the creation of a "black" voting district in Georgia (Abrams v. Johnson). The problem, with or without such a district, is that our system of representation gives absolute advantage to simple majorities, because the winner of 51 percent of the vote takes all. To create a majority black or Hispanic district may discriminate against minority white residents, just as a majority white district may discriminate against ethnic minorities. Yet how is it possible to represent all ethnic and ideological minorities in a simple-majority system? It cannot be done. How, then, can everyone participate in a national conversation on race if the most important forum—Congress and state legislatures—makes no room for minority representation?

Seeking to design and implement a system of proportional representation for the House of Representatives and state legislatures—a system that most of the world's democracies have—would not only give us something new to talk about now. Achieving proportional representation would open up real places at the table for minorities who have not had a place before.

Talk can amount to more than mere talk if it is directed toward changing the status quo so that those now suffering discrimination can gain access to the levers of social and political power. Let's get serious about equal access to good schools and representation in government.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”