How Racial Justice Can and Ought to Be a Bipartisan Issue

January 27, 2017

By Sravya Tadepalli

Editor’s Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Sravya Tadepalli is a millennial writer based in Eugene, Oregon. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Popular uproar regarding the repeated instances of African American deaths at the hands of the police and officer exoneration led one state to actually create a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras while on-duty. And that state, contrary to one’s expectations, was not one of the liberal strongholds of California, Maryland, or Connecticut. The state was conservative South Carolina, one of the most heavily Republican states in the country. Yet senators as different from each other racially and politically as Gerald Malloy, an African-American Democrat, and Paul Thurmond, a white Republican and the son of staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond, were able to come together to co-sponsor a bill that would serve to provide clear-cut insight into what can never be considered partisan — the truth. And the fact that this bill, the first of its kind to pass, passed in South Carolina with overwhelming support from both parties shows that issues of racial justice are bipartisan issues with great potential for cooperation and agreement.

While issues of concern to minorities have traditionally been seen as preoccupations of the left wing, independents and conservatives have found the cause of racial justice to be an issue of importance for everyone. Take criminal justice reform, for instance. Many legal institutions of the U.S. criminal justice system, such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and sentencing flexibility, have disproportionately hurt people of color. Hispanics and African Americans together comprised 60% of the U.S. prison population in 2010, despite comprising only 29% of the U.S. population. About 5 times as many whites use drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for a drug offense.

Even after leaving incarceration and rehabilitation, low-level offenders of color face significant challenges in getting back on their feet in the real world. A study from Harvard University found that black job applicants with a criminal record (non-violent, felony drug conviction) had a five-percent chance of getting an interview callback, while white job applicants with a criminal record had a seventeen-percent chance of getting a callback.

While all of these facts come as a result of institutional racism and implicit bias ingrained in American culture, there are still policy solutions that can help to deal with some of these issues of injustice. Bipartisan groups have found ways to make criminal justice reform palatable to both sides of the aisle.

The pitch is fairly simple. Emphasizing the importance equal opportunity and protecting minorities has typically done the trick to convince Democrats of the importance of reforms. The Democratic base is becoming increasingly minority-based, and the party knows that it needs to appeal to its core. For Republicans, libertarian principles of fiscal conservatism and limited government have done an excellent job of convincing conservatives of the necessity of change. The United States pays $80 billion annually for corrections services. Those convicted of drug offenses compose nearly half of the nation’s inmates. Republicans have been able to easily see that as the party that stands for fiscal responsibility and limited government, they cannot support the vast state spending and overreach that comes with heavy policing and harsh sentencing. And the pitch to both parties has worked.

The U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform group, has made significant progress in advocating for reforms in several states. Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, just began a Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. Democratic Governor Edwards of Louisiana just signed a “ban the box” law with a 30–6 Senate vote, removing the requirement for job applicants to disclose their criminal record in the initial hiring process. The Minnesota legislature just passed huge reforms to drug mandatory minimum laws with a 129–0 vote. Reforms of all kinds are happening in a huge way at the state level, even in more conservative states like Louisiana and South Carolina.

There are probably hundreds of issues related to racial justice that need to be dealt with in this country. It will probably take a long time to deal with these issues and we may never solve all of them. But if South Carolina can take down the Confederate Flag and advocate against police violence with grace, poise, and bipartisan support, and Louisiana can ban the box, it oughtn’t be too difficult for common-sense reforms to be conducted on a national level.

The Democratic Party upholds equality of opportunity and protection of minorities as core principles. The Republican Party holds fiscal responsibility and government accountability as important tenets of its members. Racial justice is an issue where everyone should be able to come together. And they should — because with Congress at a 13% approval rating, everyone is waiting for something in that big building with a dome on top to get done.


Sravya Tadepalli is a student at the University of Oregon, studying political science. She enjoys reading, theater, and public speaking, and recently placed 2nd at the 2015 USA World Schools Debate Invitational as a member of the South Oregon contingent. Sravya has many public policy interests, but is most fascinated by issues concerning social justice, foreign policy, and political reform.


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