Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sun Prairie And Other School Districts Across Wisconsin Must Reexamine Their Black History Lessons

Wisconsin's racial disparities exist in part due to ignorance.

The incident involving a student wearing blackface at a local high school sporting event over the weekend showcases the need for students to be taught black history in more depth, not just in the suburbs of Madison, but throughout the state of Wisconsin.

The student, who did not wear blackface upon arriving at a Sun Prairie High School but applied it on during the girls basketball game on Saturday, was immediately chided by his fellow peers, and told to remove it by them. That's wonderful news that deserves to be recognized — that the kids spoke up against a racist action.

What's disturbing, however, is that the action happened in the first place.

According to the Sun Prairie School District, which sent a letter to parents on Monday about the incident over the weekend, had the administrators noticed the student engaging in direct racist activities, they would have halted it at once.

"The student would not have been allowed to enter the event while wearing blackface. Had district personnel been notified or observed this, they would have acted immediately," the letter read, per reporting from CNN.

Those are good sentiments to hear. But it's not enough.

If it's unclear to some that this action was racist — undoubtedly, apologists will chalk it up to a misunderstanding by the student, whom they will insist shouldn't be criticized TOO much for it — one only has to consider which teams were playing. The game featured Sun Prairie, a district where 7-in-10 students are white, against Madison Memorial, a school whose population is 50 percent non-white.

Students from Sun Prairie's high school, middle school, and the Prairie Phoenix Academy walked out on Tuesday to protest what happened, WKOW reported. They made demands directly to Superintendent Brad Saron and other administrators, who promised to address them in talks with student leaders in the near future.

Those demands included:
  • updating school policies to include stricter enforcement against racist actions;
  • hiring more teachers of color in the schools; and
  • reviewing curriculum to ensure schools are teaching black history in a proper way.
On that last point in particular, it isn't just Sun Prairie School District that needs to address their curriculum. Schools across the state, beyond the suburbs of Madison (but including that city also), need to do more to educate their students on the story of racism in the United States, beyond just the basics.

So often, I fear, such history courses are content to discuss the bare bones of black history, in particular the parts of American history in which people of color were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Slavery gets a mention, as does freedom after the Civil War. But then, it's apparent that most people's understanding of black history fast-forwards to Martin Luther King/the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which likely only gets lip service in the classroom, if we're being completely honest.

But there's a lot of history that's missing. What about the Dredd Scott ruling? The three-fifths clause of the Constitution, and the racist reasonings for instituting the Electoral College? The American Black Holocaust? What of Plessy v. Ferguson? What of Emmett Till? Bring these terms up at your Thanksgiving dinner this week, and see how many of your relatives' faces go blank.

Heck, how often did your own face go blank just reading them now?

Among those issues, the disturbing history of minstrel shows and blackface must also be included. It's evident, based on the comments on local news sites' Facebook pages that shared this story, that many people don't see what the big deal is. There is a historical record, however, of these types of acts perpetuating stereotypes and insulting black Americans, all to get a laugh from a white audience.

That history is largely ignored in the classroom, it would appear — had it been discussed, it's unlikely this student would have applied blackface makeup at the game on Saturday.

This is an unforgivable sin, to gloss over our nation's history, and to forget about it all like it wasn't that big of a deal. It has real-world consequences.

Wisconsin is the most segregated state in the Union today, and one of the worst for nonwhite families to live in. And we imprison black men at a proportionally higher rate than whites.

More importantly, there is ignorance in this state about black history, on what qualifies as racism, and the willful ignorance over the treatment of nonwhites that is observable to any person willing to take an honest look at things. I have plenty of anecdotal stories I can recall of conversations I've had where a white acquaintance of mine has said or done something that is blatantly racist that they dismiss as a joke, or try to make a false equivalency to in order to defend themselves.

We need to do better in this state. We can start with our schools.

The demands of Sun Prairie students ought to extend beyond that district. They should be addressed by our state legislature, our governor, and by schools across Wisconsin. Change has to happen now.

Featured image credit: Scartol/Wikimedia

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why 'Sanctuary Counties' Supposedly Protecting Gun Rights In Wisconsin May Violate The Constitution

Municipalities cannot just ignore gun laws from state and federal governments 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called a special legislative session this fall to address the issue of gun laws in the state. Instead of taking the issue seriously, Republicans in the legislature opened, and then closed the session out within seconds.

Their decision to do so was irresponsible. Gun laws have been loosened tremendously over the past decade, thanks to Evers's predecessor, former Gov. Scott Walker. Many Republican lawmakers who are in office today also helped to promote or write the changes to gun laws back then.

What was meant to be a deterrence to violence, however, actually had the opposite effect: murder and crime rates went up, and Wisconsinites didn't become safer under the changes, as was promised by that governor and GOP legislators at the time.

Opponents to new proposals from the Democratic governor worry that the ideas he and other Democrats are putting forward would hamper the rights of lawful gun owners. But the changes Evers is calling for aren't that egregious, even to the common gun enthusiast.

According to WPR, Evers is calling on the legislature to pass, at a minimum, stronger background checks on every gun sale. That means closing the "gun show loophole," which permits anyone to buy a gun at such shows across the state without having to submit to a background check — even felons or other violent criminals who are forbidden from owning them.

Evers is also asking the GOP legislature to support "red flag" laws, which would allow concerned friends or family members of an individual to petition a judge to remove the right of that individual, temporarily, from owning weapons, if the judge deems them to be a danger to themselves or to others. A process for that individual to appeal the ruling by the judge would exist.

Both proposals have widespread support from Wisconsinites, which is a rarity in today's politics. Over 4-in-5 state residents support red flag legislation; when it comes to background checks on every gun sale, the same numbers are supportive of the idea.

"Sanctuary County" Declartion In Northern Wisconsin

There are a small number of Wisconsinites who oppose those ideas, however, and some counties are trying to prevent such laws from being implemented. In Florence County this past week, the county board voted unanimously to describe its jurisdiction as a "sanctuary county" for guns, in large part because of Evers's desire for stricter rules.

The county, which is located near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and has a population of about 4,300 residents, would essentially allow its law enforcement agencies, including its sheriff's department, to ignore any laws that come down from Washington D.C. or Madison that disallow people's rights to own weapons.

The language of the resolution omits who determines whether a law is unconstitutional or not, leaving it ambiguous and seemingly allowing local lawmakers or law enforcement agencies to make those interpretations.

"What we’re saying is the Second Amendment allows for law-abiding citizens to be able to protect their homes and bear arms," Florence County Board chair Jeanette Bomberg said.

Is this legal? Comparisons to sanctuary cities for immigration are "apples to oranges"

Can a county just say it's not going to enforce federal or statewide gun laws? In most cases, probably not. For one, it violates the standard of the Supremacy Clause found in the Constitution, which states that governments that are larger and inclusive of smaller governments take precedence when it comes to their own lawmaking.

But there are exceptions. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, has ruled that on certain types of laws, the federal government cannot compel local governments to act in ways they do not like. This is where things get tricky.

Although the Trump administration is making efforts to change things, sanctuary cities, which protect undocumented immigrants living in their limits, are currently deemed legal under the law. These cities have passed ordinances that declare their law enforcement and other agencies will not cooperate with federal officials when it comes to capturing and deporting immigrants from within their areas.

Such arguments have held up in the courts, according to the Washington Post. The Supreme Court has held that the 10th Amendment protects such localities against being compelled to enforce the higher laws. In other words, the feds can take action within such sanctuary cities, but they cannot require local governments to do whatever they ask.

The "sanctuary county movement," of which Florence County is a part of now, seeks to take the sanctuary cities idea and apply it to guns. But there's a problem for that movement: other laws and restrictions placed on localities by the higher-ups do apply. The Second Amendment is one of those areas.

Some Constitutional provisions have been what's called "fully incorporated" by the 14th Amendment, while others are not. The "right to bear arms" is one of those provisions.

Here's how it works: if a law is passed by the federal government that deals with guns, and it passes muster in the courts, the Supreme Court has said in the past that the law must be enforced across the states and local governments as well, regardless of their own legal beliefs. This is why a city like Chicago was forced to change its gun laws after the Supreme Court ruled they violated residents' rights.

In short: some laws passed by larger governments can be "ignored" if localities want to have no part in them. The feds can still enforce the laws themselves, but the local governments don't have to cooperate directly with them. On other matters, however, the local governments cannot ignore the federal standard — including on gun issues.

Local governments — including Florence County — cannot become "sanctuaries" for unfettered gun use or ownership

If things remain interpreted in the courts as they do today, gun laws and standards handed out by the federal government must be respected, including by any county's law enforcement agencies. This renders Florence's declaration moot, but it's unclear whether the county will adhere to those standards or not, which could be incredibly problematic.

Such "sanctuary counties" are essentially saying that when it comes to guns, they don't want to follow the rules. Well, that's too bad — the courts are very clear that every jurisdiction has to follow the same interpretation of the law put forth. They cannot just make a declaration like this, and decide to ignore mandates from above, when it pertains to gun laws.

Florence County chair Bomberg said people in her jurisdiction are "scared" of gun laws being forced down their throats. But the push for more restrictions, at least at the state level, are reasonable changes. A person who is violent, or has a record of engaging in violent acts in the past, should be restricted from owning weaponry that can make future acts of aggression even more dangerous.

To be sure, such individuals should have a means to get such restrictions lifted. But the people of this state are very on what they want: background checks and red flag legislation. Those types of laws do not hinder a person's right to protect themselves, especially when it comes to the "well-regulated" rights found within the interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Featured image credit: Nikon D3300/Max Pixel

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Should We Have The Ballot Initiative In Wisconsin? Yes — But With Some Added Rules

A proposal to introduce the ballot initiative in Wisconsin should come with some added safeguards. 

Three Democrats in the state legislature are proposing an amendment to Wisconsin's Constitution that would allow voters the opportunity to write their own laws.

The measure will likely die in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate. But it brings about a valid question: should the voter initiative be brought to Wisconsin?

The proposal by Reps. David Crowley and Gary Hebl, as well as Sen. Dave Hansen, would create a multi-step process in order to produce a voter-led ballot initiative. First, for any proposed law, a citizens' group would have to get signatures equaling 5 percent of the total number of ballots cast in the previous Secretary of State election — which is no easy task, amounting to hundreds of thousands of signatures based off the last statewide race.

Next, after signatures are verified for the question being considered, it would be put to the voters to decide. With a majority vote, however, the proposed law wouldn't be put on the books quite yet: it would then go to the current session of the state legislature to consider. If the legislature passes the proposal, the governor would also have to sign the bill in order for it to become law.

If the legislature and governor DON'T approve of the proposed law, it's not necessarily dead quite yet: the measure goes back to the electorate in the following election cycle, where the people vote on it again. If the measure passes the ballot a second time, it becomes law.

It may surprise you to learn, but I'm personally against simpler versions of ballot initiatives. While I generally trust the electorate to be informed, it doesn't mean that the voters make the right choices every time. Indeed, that's one of the dangers of democracy, and representative government helps protect against so-called "mob rule."

Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but I recall the 2006 Constitutional amendment that limited marriage rights in the state to being solely between a man and a woman. Two sessions of the state legislature passed that law, but a statewide referendum cemented it into our state's highest governing document. I would hate for anything similar to be passed into law again, particularly through a ballot measure during a low-turnout election year.

That being said, the proposal put forward by the three Democrats named above seems to address that point, at least in part. If the citizenry likes a proposal, but it doesn't protect the rights of a certain group of people, for example, it can "checked" against by a state legislature or governor who can ensure encroachments are defeated.

I like the spirit of what Crowley, Hebl, and Hansen have put forward, but I would change one thing: if the measure goes back to the people to vote upon for a second time, it should require a super-majority of the electorate to overrule the "vetoes" of the legislature and the governor, perhaps three-fifths concurrence from the people to make it a law. And then, if the legislature still thinks it's a law worth overriding, it should require an equal number — three-fifths of a quorum in both houses — to kill the measure again.

A ballot measure for Wisconsin would be great for a number of reasons. It would allow citizens a chance to bypass the ill effects of partisan gerrymandering, by suggesting laws that the state legislature ordinarily wouldn't consider, particularly those with overwhelming support.

But it has to be done the right way. A citizen-led ballot initiative can be a double-edged sword — it can produce great good, but it can also result in populist agendas that do harm to marginalized communities.

Crowley, Hebl, and Hansen have produced an idea of a ballot initiative that seeks to address that possibility. It just needs to be tweaked a tiny bit more.

Featured image credit: Jeff Dean/WikimediaCGP Grey/Flickr