HARTFORD, CT, February 25, 2014 – Decrying the perennial low voter turnout by African Americans and Latinos, civil rights activist Judith Browne Dianis Monday exhorted members of minority groups to become more engaged in this country’s democratic processes if they expect to block reactionary elements from rescinding hard-fought rights.
Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project in Washington D.C., is involved in combatting voter suppression efforts across the country. Her talk was entitled, “The Fight for Justice in an Age of Retrenchment.” Advancement Project’s goal is to achieve “a caring, inclusive and just democracy.”
But Dianis reminded her audience that democracy requires voter participation, noting that even in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president, the turnout among people of color was relatively low. In mid-term elections, such as this year’s, participation traditionally declines. She called that a troublesome trend.
“Election Day is the one day when we’re all equal,” she said. “When I get in the voting booth, I’m just as rich as any other person.”
Dianis said it’s especially important that members of minority groups exercise their right to vote because of changing demographics, most notably that white people are projected to be in the minority by 2050.
An attorney who has an extensive background in civil rights litigation and advocacy in the areas of voting, education, housing and employment, Dianis delivered a wide-ranging talk -- from what it was like growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Queens, NY to the legal and advocacy work that her organization is involved in.
Dianis took aim at states that are trying to disenfranchise minorities, the poor and seniors by enacting legislation that will make it harder, if not impossible, for them to vote. She singled out North Carolina, a state that Obama narrowly won in 2008, elected a Republican governor in 2012 and subsequently passed a series of laws aimed at putting up roadblocks to voter participation.
Among the hurdles that voters have to surmount are the need to have a government-issued identification card, and the elimination of early voting and Sunday voting. About 70 percent of African Americans in North Carolina vote before Election Day, and many of them also vote on Sundays. Dianis estimated that about 300,000 eligible voters in North Carolina don’t have government-issued IDs.
The laws were passed under the guise of preventing voter fraud, said Dianis. “But you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to find a prosecutorial case of voter fraud…There are certain people behind these laws who want to [stifle] our voices,” she said, adding that the NAACP and other multi-racial groups are fighting back, staging protests and trying to get the laws revoked.
“These people are trying to take us backwards,” Dianis said. “But we aren’t going backwards; we’re going forward.”
Advancement Project is also involved in the "school-to-prison pipeline," a phrase used by education reform activists and advocacy organizations to describe what they view as a widespread pattern of pushing students, especially those who are already at a disadvantage, out of school and into the criminal justice system.
Approximately 3 million children are suspended from school every year, and they are disproportionately African American and Latino. When they are harshly disciplined or suspended, Dianis said, they are more likely to drop out, commit crimes and become mired in poverty.
She said it took eight years to get Colorado to change its disciplinary code, which had required misbehaving Latino students to eat their lunch on the floor. Advancement Project and other groups are waging similar battles across the country, she said.
“It takes a long time to bring about change,” she said. “People are stuck in their ways. We all have a racial bias and it plays out in different ways.”
Dianis said Florida is the poster child for states where the legal system has said, “it’s ok to [condone] racial violence.” She cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives individuals the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without any requirement to evade or retreat from a dangerous situation. The law was used in the defense of George Zimmerman, a white man who was exonerated in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American high school student.
Just recently, Michael Dunn, the white Florida man who fatally shot a 17-year-old African-American high school senior in a convenience store parking lot after an argument over loud music, was found guilty on three counts of second-degree attempted murder. However, the jury could not reach a decision on the murder charge, and a mistrial was declared on the final count.
Dianis said all of these incidents, including the election of an African American as president, have forced Americans to have a conversation about race that hasn’t happened in a long time.
She concluded her talk by saying that there’s a long history in the United States of different groups – ethnic, racial, religious -- fighting with each other or exhibiting xenophobia.
“They’re scared of people who are different,” she said. “But those differences are what makes us great.”
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law School, Dianis joined Advancement Project after serving as the managing attorney in the Washington D.C. office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc.
Her talk was the final event of Black History Month.