Last night, John Legend and Common won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Glory,” the theme song for the Civil Rights era film “Selma.” In their acceptance speeches, Common aligned the fight that was waged against the Jim Crow racism that the film crystallizes to other fights for democracy today, here and abroad; John Legend’s words connected the policy decisions that necessitated strategic demonstration in that Alabama town to the policy imperatives of today.
Undoubtedly, Glory's award-show victories opens up a national dialogue about the state of racial justice and equity today at home; nearly 35 million watched the Oscars last night and over 25 million watched the Grammys. But at this point, the main issue at hand may no longer be about whether or not people are listening. Rather, the more targeted question is: how are people listening? And accordingly, how can we advocate for relevant change that is both current and forward thinking?
Through watching Selma and listening to “Glory” and its artists’ words, three distinct yet interconnected policy challenges emerge: access to voting (the yet‑to‑be‑reauthorized Voting Rights Act); the prison industrial complex (the disproportion of African Americans and Hispanic/Latin Americans who fall under the control of the penitentiary system); and police‑sanctioned violence at the expense of black and brown bodies (Ferguson, New York, et al.). The throughline that connects each of these is that they are all linked to who can best access our democracy.
The solutions below tackle these challenges head on in ways that move the needle by pushing for reforms that largely politically—motivated intransigence prevents them from becoming norms. Moreover, they tangibly answer the racial equity problems that Common and John Legend highlight.
Policy improvements include:
Much attention has been paid to the fact that since the Supreme Court’s Shelby v Holder decision, Congress has yet to pass a reauthorization the Voting Rights Act. While it remains important to continue pushing for passage of the strongest legislation possible, we must also advocate for affirmative voting changes. For example, Same-Day Registration, especially when coupled with Early Voting, is a proven reform that increases turnout amongst people of color by eliminating the unnecessary burdens associated with current voting and registration processes.
As we continue to push for voting rights, we must also keep in mind the dangerous ways by which money obstructs our elections, by creating a two-tiered system that favors the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations against the rest of us. For as much sovereignty as expanded access to the ballot confers for people of color, that power generated from that access diminishes greatly when more powerful and affluent interests can in effect purchase greater access to elected officials than the rest of the voting public.
And the decisions that are made and not made directly influence everything from who is over‑ versus under-represented in elected office; to how defense contracting weighs in upon the militarization of our police forces; to the presentation of too many of those same forces and local governments as under-representative of the communities they are constructed within to protect; to the cumulative effects rendered as a result of unarmed black fatalities at the hands of the police. One good pivot towards ending the money game in politics—which for all intents and purposes, racial equity advocates should view as the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement—is campaign finance reform. Particularly, a public‑matching funds scheme—which has worked very well in places like Connecticut and New York City—open great possibilities for more distributive representations of both electoral candidates and issues relevant to communities of color.
The number of U.S. prisoners, the disproportionate numbers of African American and Hispanic inmates, and the size of the private-prison lobby, are all expanding. Many offenders of color are imprisoned due to non-violent offenses that are adjudicated disproportionately vis-à-vis their white counterparts, that in a number of cases correlate to how individuals and communities of color are policed. Further, upon release from the corrections system, many of these same individuals struggle to successfully re-enter civilian life—obtain housing and gainful employment—due to the pervasiveness by which their criminal histories are allowed to factor into their re‑entry prospects.
Making matters worse, prisoners are stripped of their voting rights—in some cases forever—while states are able to count them as residents within their respective jurisdictions for redistricting purposes. Four policies could directly alters the dynamics of these disparities: sentencing reform; prisoner re-enfranchisement; prison redistricting reform; and Ban the Box/Fair Chance legislation, in addition to improving both the preventive and rehabilitative properties of our criminal justice system, could each (and cumulatively) an important shift in numbers and manners by which people of color achieve adequate representation.
The persistence of unarmed black and brown death at the hands of police officer strongly suggests what perhaps should be obvious by now—broken windows policing is broken. That New York City no longer holds its official Stop‑and‑Frisk policy, despite what subsequently befell Eric Garner, at least tacitly implies that state-sanctioned harassment of people based on skin color, where they live, what they wear, and how they speak is not the most effective means to prevent and solve crime.
Common and John Legend's speeches opened by a dialogue about race in America, now it’s time for policymakers and advocates to follow their lead and make reform real.