January 8, 2009

Civil Right’s New Direction

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

There are many events, people, and ideas from our history as a community, nation, and people that connect to the words “civil rights”—Martin Luther King, Jr., Medger Evers, The Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and so much more.  The fight to achieve recognition and human respect from the ruling majority was a long task; one that has still not ended.  Here in Wisconsin, African-Americans continue to earn less than white counterparts, suffer higher unemployment, and are disproportionally over incarcerated in our corrections system.

The fight for civil rights has lead our nation down many different paths – voting rights, affirmative action, employment discrimination, housing availability, and much more.  As President-elect Obama prepares to take office, his tone on civil rights has taken a remarkable turn from the standard image of the movement.  Included in Obama’s civil rights initiatives is major corrections reform, the end of racial profiling, eliminating sentencing disparities, and expand use of drug courts.

It is refreshing to see the words civil rights used to describe the issues facing our corrections systems and policies.  In the Wisconsin State Senate, I chair the committees which deal with our state corrections system.  Every day, I hear the stories of overcrowding, racial profiling, excessive force actions, and systemic disenfranchisement.  On top of those issues, our state is projected to need 8,920 new prison beds in the next ten years at a cost of over 1.2 billion dollars. 

Obviously, Wisconsin is a ground zero area in the battle for civil rights in this area.  President-elect Obama has indentified the great racial disparities in our system, both in prisons and in the court system as an area to assert a new direction.  Wisconsin needs the same new direction.  Working together, the federal and state government can come to a new attitude, a new policy, and that new direction that we need, both to save financial resources and human capital.

If civil rights and voting rights of the 1960’s were about ensuring the rights of law for all people, the new civil rights of this day will be about ensuring that the law helps all people to overcome the challenges of our world.  That kind of change we can believe in!