RACISM AND THE LAW. A vote for fixing what the Founding Fathers forgot

WE must first admit that the United States is a ``defective, racist, sexist, classist nation,'' says Harvard professor Charles Vert Willie. Then as we understand that ``these labels are unworthy of a great democracy ... [we] can rid ourselves of them.'' Dr. Willie is a specialist on school desegregation and other issues shaping the role of blacks in the US. A classmate of the late Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College, Willie says we must ``overcome the tendency to deny the defects'' of our democracy. The sociologist agrees with US Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall's recent criticism of the framers of the Constitution for ignoring the rights of minority groups. (The ``Constitutional Journal'' continues today on the back page.) But these errors serve as lessons to remedy racism and sexism today, he adds.

Willie's watchwords for reform are diversity and flexibility.

``If we want our laws to continue to be beneficial to all, we have to make sure that the lawmaking structures are diversified,'' he stresses. ``Diversity is our source of security. It was our source of security when our Constitution was formed, and it will continue to be our source of security even today.

``That is the lesson to be derived from the Constitution.''

Willie talks of diversity specifically in terms of participation of racial minorities in the decisionmaking process.

``One racial minority [Justice Marshall] and one female [Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor] have been appointed to the Supreme Court,'' he points out. ``That is almost blasphemous in a society where half of the people are female and at least one-fifth of the people are racial minorities. We should never have had a situation in which their representation was not present over the highest lawmaking structure of our nation.''

Willie would bring greater racial and gender diversity not only to the Supreme Court, but to lower judicial jurisdictions as well as other decisionmaking branches of government.

He hesitates to call for exact quotas for ethnic and female participation in public policy. ``But to the extent that gender and race are important social variables in our society, these ought to be represented ... and ought to be prescribed by law,'' he says.

The Harvard educator carries the need for diversity to the area of elective office. In addition to a greater mix of women and racial minorities in government, he favors more representation from rural America and increased participation from various socioeconomic classes.

``What I would write into legislation is that the members of our decisionmaking groups must consist of unlike kind, and the unlike kind should represent major social categories that are significant at the period when such persons are being selected,'' Willie says.

``Indeed, I would classify diversity as the source of our salvation.''

The other ingredient - flexibility - is necessary to erase racism and sexism from a society under constitutional government, Willie says. ``Probably one of the greatest features of the Constitution is the flexibility which is built into it to enable it to embrace new and more refined ideas about justice.''

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, for example, provided the basis of later civil rights legislation, the school desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court, and the Voting Rights Act, he notes.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the Constitution the opportunity to support the goal of diversity. This legislation made it possible for blacks to register and vote in every district in the US. And it has been extended and strengthened three times - most recently in 1982.

``That law and the support of that law by our Supreme Court has enabled our local civil districts to exhibit a greater amount of participation in decisionmaking by a racial minority,'' Willie says.

``I attribute the increasing number of [minority] mayors and the increasing number of representatives in state legislatures and in local city government and county government to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ... which was designed for diversity,'' he adds.

The sociologist-educator urges Americans now celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution to focus on its Preamble. ``The Preamble suggests that no one is entitled to extraordinary opportunity and that all are entitled to the joys and the benefits and the liberties of this nation.''

It was this Preamble that really established ``the basic tone for the nation,'' Willie adds, and enabled the Constitution to deal with individual rights through its first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights.

He borrows the theme of ``overcoming'' from his former classmate, the Rev. Dr. King.

``What we should be celebrating is how we overcame the [Constitution's] early defects, and even continuing defects; ... how we overcame the defect of not thinking that women were not worthy of being counted; ... and how we overcame the defect of not thinking that blacks represented a whole person,'' Willie adds.

``As a teacher I continuously try to teach my students to reflect upon, to review, their failures. It's only by understanding one's failures, and why one fails, that one really can discover ways of overcoming them.

``That's the way I would like to see us celebrate our Constitution. Celebrate its place, its flexibility. And celebrate how that flexibility enables us to overcome our failures.''

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