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SPLC President: In the wake of Trump, a year of new challenges and opportunities

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Southern Poverty Law Center. After a half century of working to ensure that the promise of the civil rights movement becomes a reality for all, we may be facing the most critical year yet in the march for justice.

Long before the siege of the U.S. Capitol, the Trump administration had already greatly damaged our country and its promise of justice and equity for all by promoting policies that attacked civil rights and devastated communities. It would be a mistake to think that with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we could easily repair the damage of the last four years.

The pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in this country also exposed dramatic – and longstanding – racial disparities that must be addressed, such as inequities in health care, housing, the workplace, education and finance. What’s more, the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color have energized a decades-long movement for a fundamental reimagining of policing and incarceration – reform long overdue in the United States.

We must take immediate action to not only repair the harm of the last four years, but also move our nation closer to realizing its highest ideals. During 2021, the SPLC and our lobbying arm, the SPLC Action Fund, will work toward that goal by pursuing a bold, transformative agenda, which we’ve outlined in Vision for a Just Future, our blueprint for this undertaking. This presidential transition memo and its accompanying policy briefs offer progressive measures to bring deep, meaningful change.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of these recommendations. We will not only pursue the reforms outlined below but also urge the Biden administration to use every tool at its disposal to achieve these changes.

Confronting hate and threats to democracy

Since Charlottesville, we have reported a growing white nationalist movement. In 2017, Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency had energized the radical right. That was also the most lethal year for violent domestic extremism since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. White supremacists were responsible for the majority of those deaths in 2019, according to recent U.S. Department of Justice findings.

In other words, white nationalists were emboldened by Trump long before the Jan. 6 insurrection and the anxious days before Biden’s inauguration, which saw tens of thousands of National Guard troops providing security for the inauguration.

There are, however, concrete steps the federal government can take to counter the threat, dismantle white supremacist ideology in our nation’s institutions and, yes, rebuild trust in democracy. Our recommendations include the establishment of a national truth, racial healing and transformation commission to examine the history of white supremacy and structural racism in the United States. Our nation’s long history of injustice committed in the cause of white supremacy demands no less.

Fighting institutional racism means closing loopholes that allow discriminatory policing. What’s more, police should not be an occupying force in our communities. This means ending programs that militarize the police – most notably those that allow law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment.

Removing institutional racism also means removing Confederate monuments and other public displays of such symbols of white supremacy at the state and municipal levels. It’s encouraging that more than 100 such symbols have been removed in communities across the country since Floyd’s death last May, but much more can be done. Federal funding should be provided to remove such symbols at the state and municipal levels. The SPLC will also continue to campaign for the removal of these monuments and symbols from public spaces across the Deep South.

These are only a few of the recommendations for confronting hate and threats to democracy in 2021. An additional series of policy recommendations to fight hate and extremism will be released early this year when we issue our annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report.

Institutional racism, inclusion and educational equity

Since our nation’s founding, denying access to a quality education has been a powerful tool to perpetuate white supremacy. In the South, politicians in recent decades have failed to provide sufficient funding for public education, leaving the region’s children – particularly children of color and others in historically disadvantaged communities – without the resources they need and deserve.

Additionally, over the past four years, the Trump administration has stripped critical anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections from Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous students, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students. They also have been disproportionately affected by policies and practices that perpetuate pipelines from school to prison, deportation or mental institutions. These are some of the reasons we’re pursuing reforms to promote nondiscriminatory school discipline and reinstate broad federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. And among other recommendations, we’re urging federal incentives for states to revise school funding formulas to ensure equitable education for students.

At the state level, the SPLC will promote police-free schools in Louisiana and investment in counselors, nurses and other professionals to help build and nurture positive learning environments. In Alabama, we’ll promote legislation requiring schools to notify a parent or guardian before a student is suspended or expelled – and to conduct a fair hearing before doing so. Alabama is the only state in the Southeast without such a requirement.

Criminal justice reform and decarceration  

Recent years have underscored an undeniable truth in this country: Our criminal justice system has done irreparable harm to communities of color by virtually criminalizing the existence of Black, Brown and Indigenous people. Whether it is through deadly police brutality or the school-to-prison pipeline – which has helped make us a world leader in incarceration – it’s clear that our justice system does not provide justice for all.

True reform includes banning police from using chokeholds, promoting de-escalation techniques, prohibiting no-knock warrants and encouraging reform that ensures law enforcement officers are held accountable for misconduct. Other steps include eliminating the use of private companies to detain people in state and federal prisons and in immigrant detention. We also must expand Department of Education data collection on matters such as youth arrests and police use of force in schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline. And we must expand funding for educational opportunities and vocational training of incarcerated people.

These recommendations and others are desperately needed to promote a fair and equitable criminal justice system. At the state level, we’ll be advocating policies in Mississippi to reform sentencing and restore parole eligibility. We will also seek to overturn other unnecessarily harsh laws across the South – including the citizen’s arrest law in Georgia, a legacy of the state’s fugitive slave laws – and eliminating habitual offender enhancements in Louisiana and Alabama.

Immigration reform, refugees and asylum seekers

Our nation has a dysfunctional and punitive immigration system rooted in prejudice and fear. The Trump administration’s policies made it worse. Immigrant communities in the Southeast, especially, have suffered.

We must build a just, fair and humane immigration system through reform designed to safely welcome migrants to this country in an orderly fashion, set out a clear and simple process to gain immigration status, allow people to stay with their families or other sponsors in the United States while they await their immigration hearings, and connect those who need it to key community institutions and services. Among other measures, we must end detention and implement humane, cost-effective, community-based case management. Our recommendations also outline measures to protect immigrant workers and end exploitive labor practices – efforts that can improve employment conditions for all U.S. workers.

Newly inaugurated President Biden’s proposal of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which includes a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans, and other proposals are, indeed, an important first step toward immigrant justice. However, we must realize that this legislation and the day-one executive orders are only the first steps. As we noted earlier this week, the injustices against Black, Brown and Indigenous immigrants over the years demand a complete reimagining of our immigration system.

Voting rights and voter engagement

The 2020 elections demonstrated how deeply Americans value democracy. In the midst of a deadly pandemic, voter turnout was the highest in over a century, despite suppressive tactics. We are working at both the federal and state levels to protect voting rights and ensure voter engagement. 

First and foremost, Congress must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to restore a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gutted by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013. The legislation would restore federal scrutiny of states and municipalities with a history of voter disenfranchisement. In addition to supporting a raft of other federal measures, we’ll be working with our coalition partners in several Deep South states to expand ballot access and to end modern-day poll taxes and other obstacles blocking people with felony convictions from voting. In this post-Census year, we will fight discriminatory redistricting and reapportionment schemes that dilute a community’s power at the ballot box.

These are only a few of our recommendations to protect the cornerstone of our democracy.

Food insecurity, poverty and workplace injustice

People are the engine of the U.S. economy, but the economy is deeply unequal and undemocratic – a situation dramatically exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past 50 years, we have seen a widening gap between worker productivity and wages. Many Americans, despite having full-time jobs, now experience significant levels of financial instability. The Deep South has the highest rates of food insecurity in the country

What’s more, predatory lenders coupled with unequal access to opportunity have prevented significant portions of the population – particularly Black, Brown and Indigenous people – from fully participating in the economy as business owners, workers, homeowners and students. 

That’s why we’re recommending reforms such as raising the federal minimum wage to a living wage, limiting interest rates and fees by predatory financial services companies and amending federal law so that people could more easily put student debt into bankruptcy. We’re fighting to ensure there’s a true social safety net by opposing state Medicaid waivers that allow states to create unlawful barriers to coverage, such as work requirements. In states across the Southeast, the SPLC will be part of coalitions advocating for pandemic unemployment benefits, health benefits and protections against evictions.

We’re also fighting for the rights of farmworkers and domestic workers by advocating for their inclusion in worker protection laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. These workers were excluded from these laws to maintain power over Black workers by carving out sectors of the economy in which most workers were Black. We must correct this injustice, among so many others.

A milestone for the SPLC and the nation

Despite a deadly attack on the heart of our democracy, the SPLC enters its 50th year with great optimism.

The failed insurrection that marked the beginning of 2021 was horrifying, but our nation and our democracy are resilient. Ultimately, the United States rejected an administration that promoted an agenda appealing to white nationalists.

And there is more reason for hope.

Last year, the people of this country took to the streets to demand an end to longstanding racial injustice, marking an historic inflection point from which our nation cannot turn back. And after a year marked by a lethal pandemic, vaccines offer the promise of a return to a life where we can once again hug our loved ones and join together to work and celebrate key moments.

A half century may have passed since the SPLC’s founding, but our work is more vital and relevant than ever. The road ahead will include challenges, but working shoulder to shoulder with the communities we serve, we will continue the march for justice with renewed confidence and commitment.

Photo illustration by SPLC