Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Obama on civil rights & equality strategy

I got this from Slate, one of my regular rags. i found a real insightful observation (in bold below) about the different attitudes that conservatives and liberals have on the role of the courts. I relate it to what i learned from the book Who Rules America by Domhoff.

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In some states, like California, judges instructed the state to take steps to equalize school funding from district to district. In others, like Kansas and Kentucky, and in ongoing litigation in Connecticut, the court decisions are framed in terms of adequacy of funding—making sure each district has enough, rather than the same amount. Either way, it's redistribution of what's become a rather routine sort. This is what Obama was talking about when he said in the radio interview, "Suddenly, a whole bunch of folks start bringing these claims in state court under state constitutions that call for equal educational opportunity, and you see state courts with mixed results being more responsive to it."

What comes through far more clearly in the interview is a tactical point: Obama thinks it's a mistake to rely too much on courts to further any broad agenda. He says, "I think one of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court-focused. I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that." And then he continues, "Maybe I am showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but you know … the institution just isn't structured that way."

This is a whole separate, bitter, ongoing fight in legal circles—over when to turn to courts as a means of change and when to turn to the legislature, which is directly accountable to the voters and so perhaps the safer and more stable route. It's a truism that conservatives favor legislative change and see the courts as an undemocratic end run around it. They especially think that about any push for "redistributive change," Obama's subject here. In this interview, Obama comes down on the traditionally conservative side, albeit for presumably different reasons. He thinks the civil rights movement misjudged the courts' utility—they were good for providing for a right to vote and for black people to sit with white people at a lunch counter, to use Obama's examples, but they're not good for deciding who's entitled to what government benefits or property rights. "Obama is with Bork on this," Cass Sunstein, an Obama adviser, told me, referring, of course, to the arch-conservative, famously not-confirmed-to-the-Supreme Court Judge Robert Bork.
copied from this Slate article
"end quote

What i found interesting was that Domhoff outlines how the 'elite' class influences America, but i don't remember any explicit contrast between the legislative and court-based strategies of getting what you want done. I think if more liberals look at passing laws (liberal majority yeah!) instead of waiting for the courts, then America would be a much more balanced society.
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