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The Arc of the Universe Might Be Bending Toward Justice; But We Still Have to Fight Like Hell in 2012

If we avoid triumphalism, get explicit about race and keep fighting, we can make the most of movement potential in the coming year.

 As 2011 ends, the arc of the moral universe appears to be bending in the direction of justice. Developments in immigration, criminal justice and labor policy point to shifts in the discourse that give communities of color some new leverage. If we avoid triumphalism, get explicit about race and keep fighting, we can make the most of movement potential in the coming year.

Immigrant rights activists are celebrating key victories. For years, huge amounts of money and energy went into advocating what was called “comprehensive immigration reform,” at the expense of all other demands and strategies. The “comprehensive” reform idea was to balance new immigration enforcement schemes with legalizing the status of millions of undocumented people and improving the system overall. But a comprehensive bill never passed. Rather, every year the bill got worse for immigrants— more enforcement and less relief. By 2009, the comprehensive bill was fully dead, leaving the field free to address the racial and economic anxiety behind that loss. 

The bill’s failure opened up space for many organizations to take a broader approach, one that was less legislative and more cultural. That shift lets us humanize immigrants, which leads native-born people to ask themselves if the enforcement-only approach is worth the deaths, the family separations and the civil rights violations that result from our system.

Even immigration hard liners are softening their language, and their policy prescriptions. On MSNBC this fall, Roy Beck, the founder of Numbers U.S.A., a restrictionist organization with millions of members, referred to “people who are here without papers” rather than  labeling them with the i-word. He also said that mass deportation and mass legalization are not the only options. We’ve always known that Beck didn’t like mass legalization, but backing off from mass deportation is a shift. The right is increasingly playing defense.

It’s not just Numbers’ shift. In November,  voters recalled anti-immigrant Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce. Last week, the Department of Justice concluded that Arizona’s celebrity hard line Sherriff Joe Arpaio is, essentially,  running a war against Latinos; the findings prompted Immigration and Customs Enforcement to finally rescind his contract to enforce immigration policy. In the meantime, numerous media outlets are officially dropping the i-word, including the New York Times, which just dropped the noun, opening the door for a push to end its use in any form.

On the criminal justice front, Troy Davis’ execution brought the death penalty into the national conversation in a way not seen in years. It used to be a standard question during presidential elections (though mainly from supporters who wanted to ensure that the next president wouldn’t outlaw it). The Death Penalty Information Center reports an historic 75 percent drop in death sentences since 1996. This year Illinois abolished the practice, the governor of Oregon said that no more executions would take place during his term and the Ohio Supreme Court is taking a look at problems in its system. And last week, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed an effort to repeal the state’s historic Racial Justice Act, which allows death row inmates to appeal for sentence reductions based on racial disparities in death sentencing. Perdue strongly supports the death penalty, but has said bias in the system is nonetheless unacceptable.

Even in this terrible economy, there are victories to celebrate. Just last week, President Obama took the first steps toward closing a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act regulations that prevent millions of home healthcare workers from receiving overtime and minimum wage enforcement. Ninety-two percent of these workers are women, and 42 percent are black or Latino. Also on the labor front, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative won back collective bargaining rights for the state’s public sector unions. Public sector jobs are also disproportionately held by people of color, and collective bargaining has been key to the admittedly shaky but still important economic gains communities of color have made in recent decades.

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