Google This: Algorithmic Oppression

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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The Promise of Systemic Equality Starts at Home

For more than a century, the ACLU has been on the frontlines advancing civil liberties and civil rights. This has meant not only defending rights for all but taking bold positions in order to help America live up to her own ideals — a reality that is better than where we are, and one that is never finished. For over 100 years, this aspiration of a more perfect union has been our story.

Today, we are focused on a new chapter of that story: one where we've turned our attention inward to our own culture and systems to evolve as an organization that is reflecting internally the ambitions we have set externally.

Since 2016, the national headquarters of the ACLU has grown by nearly 80 percent in our staff population alone. In summer 2020, we took a census of our employee population and found that 11.6 percent of staff identify as Black/African American, which puts us above the labor market and census data average—but we can do better.

With our staff growth comes a renewed call to action. As the ACLU continues to expand, we have a responsibility to scale our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to increase pathways to employment, strengthen our culture of belonging, and enhance our professional development commitments to underrepresented staff in particular.

That's why we're eager to share a bit of this next chapter in the ACLU's work. Last month, we launched our Systemic Equality Initiative calling on the Biden administration and the country to reckon with systems of structural racism that Black and Indigenous people in this country have experienced over generations.

Joining with the Robin Hood Foundation and other prominent companies and organizations on the NinetyToZero pledge, which ensures needle-moving actions to advance racial equity by growing Black talent and investing in Black businesses, we are committing ourselves to a transformative vision for equity within our organization. We start with establishing a baseline. By 2025, the National ACLU is committed to the goal of achieving and sustaining 16 percent Black staff representation at every level of our organization.

Like many organizations, the ACLU has been engaged in ongoing work to dismantle systems of power and oppression to create lasting, meaningful change. We recognize that systemic racism pervades every aspect of life, from interactions with law enforcement, to access to housing and capital, to health care and education—as well as the workplace.

Nonprofits, NGOs, and mission-driven organizations everywhere are not removed or exempt from the power dynamics in workplaces across the country. But we believe we have a responsibility to build—with humility and vision—an organization that is more perfect than the sum of its parts. Creating meaningful change starts with changing ourselves. While our journey has not been perfect, we know that naming this work courageously and unapologetically is the first step toward bringing others along with us.

We're committing ourselves to this work through dedicated recruitment, pipeline and partnership building, and restorative inclusion. We are also holding ourselves accountable through robust data and measurement. Here's how we're approaching this work:

First, we are committing to sustained recruitment and hiring efforts from more diverse talent pools. This includes launching recruitment partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), talent recruitment programs, and recruitment outreach campaigns focused on sourcing Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) applicants. We are also changing our interviewing process to meaningfully increase the number of underrepresented candidates that receive interviews for open roles through inclusive job descriptions, structured hiring trainings, and quarterly meetings with our department heads to create intentional goals.

Second, we are building new pipelines to engage and develop BIPOC candidates earlier in their careers. This year we expanded our paid national internship program by more than 50 percent to reach more interns across the country. We are building specific internship opportunities for BIPOC communities and underrepresented college students, and building an intentional pipeline with our National Advocacy Institute to engage the next generation of leaders as early as possible. In addition, next year we will be launching a new President's Fellowship Program across ACLU departments specifically for recent college graduates from underrepresented backgrounds.

Third, we are creating initiatives to promote and retain Black leadership, and foster an equitable culture to support them. To help achieve this, we are doubling down on our efforts to provide paths for growth through progression charts and quarterly reporting of promotion data at the ACLU, and are posting senior leadership roles internally as well as externally. In addition, we are creating internal professional development programs and external resources for underrepresented staff to grow and advance in their roles. This includes intentional mentorship and sponsorship programs, which will foster relationships so that underrepresented staff have champions to elevate their work, create community, and influence and advise on organization-wide topics and practices. To support this goal, we have created proactive trainings on the ways anti-Blackness shows up in the workplace and ways we can dismantle it through bystander intervention, restorative circles, and other accountability measures.

Fourth, we are engaging Black-owned and Black-led contractors. This is an opportunity for the ACLU to leverage its significant organizational “purchasing power" to invest in businesses owned and operated by people from BIPOC and other underrepresented communities. The ACLU's Vendor EDIB program is a key tool the ACLU can leverage to build Black wealth.

Fifth, we are partnering with Black-owned financial institutions and businesses. This initiative will ensure that we're utilizing the financial resources of the ACLU and distributing them more equitably and sustainably. We're investigating how we can use our capital and assets and invest them with Black banks—building up that wealth in Black communities beyond the ACLU.

In all of these efforts, we are committed to robust measurement and accountability to assess our efficacy. Our people analytics team within our HR department will track ACLU hiring, promotion, and attrition data quarterly and report out annually to the entire organization. This data will hold us accountable and ensure that we walk the walk, not just talk the talk, when it comes to these efforts and initiatives. The future of the ACLU, and every success we have, hinges on our ability to develop, foster, and sustain a workplace of racial equity, economic justice, and transformative inclusion.

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Breaking Down Systemic Racism Through Collective Action in the South

This month, the ACLU launched its Systemic Equality agenda — an initiative designed to center equity and attack our country's legacy of systemic racism by addressing the imbalance of political power, challenging policies that ravage Black communities, and furthering efforts to advance our racial justice work. As a part of this ambitious effort, the ACLU is making an unprecedented investment in the people and region where vulnerable communities are most affected by local and national regressive policies: the South.

From Reconstruction to the attacks on democracy following the Black Lives Matter movement mobilizations this summer and the historic 2020 election, there is and has always been political backlash in retaliation to the advancement of marginalized people — particularly in the deep South. Those rooted in on-the-ground organizing and advocacy work in such places as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana know that investment in people who live and fight in the South will lead to results that reverberate across the nation.

The ACLU has a long history of protecting civil rights and advancing racial equality in the South. We were founded nationally more than a hundred years ago, and by the late 1960s had an affiliate office open in every state in the South and a Southern Regional office. ACLU staff here have worked closely with our partners over the last 50 years to make progress in dismantling the Jim Crow system and to fight for the right to vote. Over the last several years, the ACLU invested deeply in its affiliates across the South, creating new opportunities for additional legal, communications, electoral, organizing, and legislative staff.

But if the last four years have taught us anything, it is that the South is still ground zero, and we have much work to do. Two years ago, the leadership of our Southern affiliates began to talk about how to take our work to the next level: How can we more effectively address the challenges in the region together, rooted in the South's unique history of racial oppression and violence and equally remarkable history of civil rights struggles and victories? By the end of last year, we launched the Southern Collective, a collaborative project of the national office and the ACLU affiliate offices of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Together, we launched the Southern Voting Project, a regional initiative to protect and expand voting rights — one of the most critical racial justice issues — to operate at our highest capacity during the 2020 election. We engaged in election protection and get out the vote efforts, fought back against voter suppression efforts, and helped people get access to absentee ballots during the pandemic. We invested funds, ran electoral bootcamps, built new voter contact infrastructure, and joined together to educate and activate historically disenfranchised communities in the South. And we saw immediate results.

As a result of this investment, Alabama and Mississippi, which do not have early voting, saw record-breaking numbers in turnout boosted by the ACLU's litigation and advocacy efforts that focused on expanding absentee access before Election Day. The ACLU of Tennessee's voter contact program more than doubled its goals for volunteers taking action. The ACLU of Kentucky reached tens of thousands of newly eligible voters with criminal convictions whose right to vote had recently been restored. And after a chaotic and understaffed June primary, the ACLU of Georgia recruited nearly 3,000 people to be poll workers to address the massive staffing shortage due to COVID-19 and helped place almost 500 poll workers in key locations. In Alabama, we launched the state's first statewide election protection initiative. We achieved these results by working together, learning from one another, and standing on each other's shoulders to reach new heights.

Over the next two years, the ACLU will increase its investment directly in these Southern states to grow our Southern affiliates' work on strengthening voting rights and democracy, ensuring reproductive justice in Black and Brown communities, and fighting for reparations.

Our Systemic Equality initiative is more than a policy platform; it is a culmination of the ACLU's commitment to racial justice and our goal to be in alignment with the work we do externally. The support and information sharing we provide to local organizers and advocates in our affiliates across the country — and in the South — is paramount. We have long understood that systems do not create change, but our desire for liberation, equity, and equality ignites it.

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How Broadband Access Hinders Systemic Equality and Deepens The Digital Divide

If you're reading this article, you're probably not one of the millions of people living without broadband access in America. People living without broadband access — who are disproportionately non-white people, low income, or rural — do not have access to equal opportunities in education, employment, banking, and other important components of connection and social mobility. That was the case before the pandemic, and it's even worse now.

The digital divide is what separates those without broadband from those with it, and it encompasses all the broader social inequalities associated with an increasingly digitized world. Along with discrimination in housing, banking, employment, and other areas of life, it is both a result of and contributes to systemic inequalities faced by people who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other underserved groups.

What is broadband and why do we need it?

Broadband is the term used to describe high-speed, reliable internet — the kind of internet that allows us to stream movies, take part in Zoom calls, and connect with our social networks. Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission has defined broadband as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. But while internet upload and download speeds have changed significantly over the years, the FCC has not updated its definition. That makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people are living without access to the internet that's usable given today's higher technology demands.

Over the past year, schools, workplaces, health care providers, and many other basic services and functions have moved online, allowing for life to continue during lockdown. The numbers reflect this societal shift: Data use on home networks was 47 percent greater in March 2020 than the year before. But as broadband has become even more integral to our everyday lives, not all communities have had equal access. For communities living without broadband, the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated the digital divide.

How does broadband contribute to systemic equality?

The deepest rift in the digital divide is when it comes to race: Black and Latinx adults are almost twice as likely as white adults to lack broadband access. Due to systemic inequities in education and employment, people who are Black or Latinx have lower average incomes than white people, and for many of these households, a broadband subscription — at an average rate of $68 per month — may simply be unaffordable.

Check out the chart below for a rough monthly expense estimate for a family of four (two adults and two minors) living in Washington, D.C, a historically majority-Black city. At about $6,515 per month, the estimated monthly expenses amount to over $2,000 more than the median individual monthly income, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019. Even in a household with two income earners, there is almost no room for any unexpected expenses.

Adults living without broadband face significant barriers in accessing employment, education, and other necessities — but children are also impacted. Access at home is an important factor in a student's success, and is associated with higher grades and homework completion. This need was amplified by the pandemic. Many of the millions of Black and Latinx children who live in households without broadband access have not been able to attend virtual classes, potentially falling behind their classmates by an entire school year or more.

Children without broadband also miss out on developing digital skills that are necessary in today's job market. As a result of the digital divide, more than half of Black and Latinx people could be under-prepared for 86 percent of jobs by 2045, according to Deutsche Bank. These digital skills are also crucial to innovation and entrepreneurship. Black-owned businesses have increased 37 percent from 2007 to 2012. The 2019 American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report shows that Black women-owned businesses are the fastest growing at 21 percent of all women-owned businesses but only have an average annual earning of $24,000. Limited broadband access compounds the numerous systemic inequity barriers to Black-owned and Black-women owned business growth.

Access to home broadband by race

Source: Free Press analysis of July 2015 Current Population Survey Computer and Internet Use Supplement

The systemic inequity posed by limited broadband dovetails with a science policy concept called “public value failure." Public valuefailures describe the failure of a society to provide a public value, such as rights, benefits, or privileges of citizens provided by governments and policies. There are nine public value failure categories, which cover the political, economic and social aspects of this theory: mechanism for values articulation and aggregation; legitimate monopolies; imperfect public information; distribution of benefits; provider availability; time horizon; sustainability vs. conservation; and ensuring subsistence, human dignity, and progressive opportunity.

Focusing on all of these public failures simultaneously won't lead to substantive and sustainable change. So, we tackle what we can. Broadband access falls most fully into the distribution of benefits and provider availability categories, with arguably a large dose of the progressive opportunity category as well. All of our classrooms — regardless of a person's socio-economic status, urban/rural location, or in-person/remote delivery — require broadband access to hear an instructor's lecture, see a helpful tutorial, and practice the new skill. Identifying and improving in these areas hinges on building better equity in education, particularly in data skills attainment.

How do we bridge the digital divide?

There are steps the government can and must take to expand broadband access to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other underserved communities. In Congress, new legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, would help sustain equitable broadband access by providing an additional $6 billion in funds for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, an FCC program created to help households struggling to afford broadband during the pandemic. The legislation would also improve data collection and transparency on broadband access, expand digital inclusion and equity efforts, preempt state laws that prevent municipalities from expanding broadband access, and prioritize infrastructure deployment to unserved areas, such as Tribal lands.

At the executive level, President Biden has already taken important steps by including broadband in his American Jobs Plan, but he can do more. Biden must also nominate a new FCC commissioner who supports broadband access and will restore net neutrality protections, and work with Congress to enact sustainable solutions to close the digital divide.

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If the Biden Administration Is Serious About Protecting Voting Rights, Here’s What It Should Do Immediately

This op-ed was originally published by TIME Magazine and can be read in full here.

On Jan. 6, 2021, millions watched, horrified, as agitators hellbent on overturning the election results and disenfranchising Black and Brown voters staged an insurrection on the Capitol, fueled by demonstrably false allegations of voter fraud. While there are clear problems with our democracy and voting systems that must be fixed, these issues don't arise from voter fraud. They are instead the legacy problems of our republic: systematic efforts to erect voting barriers and discriminate against voters of color for political gain. The Biden administration has a real opportunity to restore faith in our democracy and move us closer to an electoral system representative of all Americans.

The Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision and the halting of preclearance requirements have emboldened states and localities to enact discriminatory voting laws without the Department of Justice's oversight, resulting in an increase in racially discriminatory laws that suppress the vote. And right now, after record voter turnout in 2020 and the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, states across the country are generating a new wave of such legislation that can be passed without crucial federal protections.

This latest assault on our democracy must be met with robust action and widespread vigilance, and the Biden administration has tools at its disposal. The Biden administration must work with Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to root out voting barriers built to discriminate against voters of color. Congressional leaders named this legislation in honor of the late civil rights legend, but the real honor to his memory would be the bill's enactment.

More immediately, the ACLU will call on the incoming U.S. attorney general to designate an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) in each of the 94 U.S. attorney offices across the country to help ensure compliance with federal voting laws. This cadre of Justice Department lawyers would augment the force of the team of attorneys in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. The severity of the challenge demands a major response. After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft required each U.S. attorney to appoint an AUSA as a point person on anti-terrorism. Jan. 6 and the broader, ongoing anti-voter actions are an attack on our democracy, and we must respond forcefully now too. These AUSA designations would be a clear signal from the Biden administration that it takes the threat of voter suppression as a serious, systematic issue for our democracy.

While tearing down barriers to the ballot, the Biden administration should also ensure all eligible Americans in their custody are able to exercise their right to vote and provide voter-registration information and services as part of release. The Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) should take affirmative steps to ensure eligible voters are not being stripped of their rights because they are incarcerated. Stripping the right to vote from and limiting voting opportunities for people in the criminal justice system is directly rooted in the suffocating racism of the Jim Crow era and began as a direct blowback from the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to end slavery and enfranchise Black men.

The 2020 election proved that racism-fueled voter suppression is alive and well. The deep racist, historical roots of targeting voters of color have persisted and grown; indeed, even a deadly pandemic provided no reprieve in the assault on voting rights. Instead, the opponents of voting rights have further proved their unrelenting desire to discount the ability of people of color to choose their elected officials, vying instead for a corrupted system in which politicians choose their voters. As John Lewis said in an op-ed published after his death, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society." We must empower Americans to vote and, by doing so, restore faith in our democracy.

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Why We Need the Post Office to Close the Racial Wealth Gap

Across America, banks are disappearing, leaving behind their most vulnerable customers, many of whom are Black and low-income. Since 2013, more than 11,000 additional bank branches have shuttered. And the trend is only accelerating. Some analysts expect as many as 20,000 additional branch closures in the immediate aftermath of the COVID pandemic. Branches in majority-Black areas, in particular, were roughly 50 percent more likely to close than those in the rest of America. As a result, 63 percent of majority-Black census tracts do not have an active bank branch; 17 percent of Black Americans are unbanked; and 30 percent of Black Americans are underbanked.

With bank branches closing at an accelerating rate, we can expect the number of unbanked Americans to grow, particularly Black Americans, as well as the fees they pay. Black consumers, like low income consumers generally, are prime candidates to be exploited by the payday loan industry. “The average unbanked family with an annual income of around $25,000 will spend about $2,400 per year, almost 10 percent of its income, on financial transactions," writes Mehrsa Baradaran in How the Other Half Banks. “This is more than these families spend on food." Over the course of a 30-year working career, being unbanked can cost the median Black family more than $86,000 in fees, representing twice their annual income.

But America is not without recourse. We believe postal banking provides a cure to what ails our most vulnerable communities. According to the Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General, the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act authorizes the agency to expand beyond money orders to other affordable services, including payroll check cashing, domestic money transfers, and bill payment. This is not a new or radical idea. A Pew survey from 2014 found that 81 percent of people who placed money orders stated that they would cash their checks at the Post Office; 79 percent would pay their bills; 71 percent would access small dollar loans; and 59 percent would utilize a reloadable prepaid card.

There is a post office in every zip code in America, including the 59 percent of zip codes that currently lack a bank branch. A substantial number of the un- and under-banked rely on their local post office for money orders, which are offered at a low cost. The Post Office is prepared to meet the unbanked where they already are.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that postal banking actually existed in the U.S. for the majority of the 20th century. Established in 1911, the Post Office offered a total savings cap at $2,500 (about $44,000 today). At its height, the Post Office held roughly 10 percent of all commercial banking. Postal banking ended in the late 1960s, largely because the American economy was expanding and the civil rights movement signaled greater inclusivity. However, the end of postal banking only led to further economic exclusion, especially for poor, rural, and BIPOC communities. Prior to the mid-1970s, check-cashing was a fringe institution that existed in only a few urban areas. But throughout the 1980s, check-cashing and payday lenders rapidly expanded across the country, growing into a $100 billion industry concentrated in counties with higher-than-average poverty rates, lower incomes, and relatively large populations of non-U.S. citizens and single parents.

And they did not come to save the poor. The average payday loan is $375 and requires an average of $500 to $600 in interest and fees. If the payday loan is insufficient, the borrower may have to rely on collateral. According to Baradaran, if they use a car as collateral, on average, they will pay $2,142 in interest on a $951 title loan. If they must resort to a pawn shop, they'll likely receive about 20 to 30 percent of the value of the item. All of this usually happens after they have been denied for mainstream credit from a bank or other “more reputable" lender.

If that was too many numbers to follow, just watch John Oliver's explainer on payday lending.

We expect these trends to continue as banks continue to disappear. Already, there are more payday lender storefronts and alternative financial service businesses in America than Starbucks or McDonalds. They are overwhelmingly located in banking deserts and minority neighborhoods where systemic racism has left concentrated poverty and negative wealth.

The Post Office has the largest retail footprint in the world, so it is primed to provide a solution to this growing crisis. Those essential financial services would cut into the market share of the payday lending industry and save American families, particularly Black families, thousands of dollars. That is why the ACLU is fighting for postal banking. In 2020, the Postal Service demonstrated its capacity to support free and fair elections at scale. In 2021, it should be allowed to demonstrate its capacity to help the most vulnerable communities make ends meet at a fair and affordable price.

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Racial Justice and Civil Liberties: An Inseparable History at the ACLU

In this July 26, 1937 file photo, police escort two of the five recently freed "Scottsboro Boys," Olen Montgomery, wearing glasses, third left, and Eugene Williams, wearing suspenders, fourth left, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York.(Credit: AP Photo/File) To join our Systemic Equality agenda to take action on racial justice, click here.

After World War I, it quickly became clear that the war to make the world “safe for democracy" had not made America safe for equality. Anti-Black race riots ripped through Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and even Elaine, Arkansas. In October 1919, after Black sharecroppers in Elaine convened a union meeting, newspapers labeled the effort a “Negro uprising." The state mobilized troops and mobs to quell the rebellion. The result was “possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States," concluded the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

The American Civil Liberties Union's origin story is tied inextricably to the xenophobic Palmer Raids, but the lesser-known events in Elaine, Arkansas were also formative. Racial violence was an unavoidable issue for any organization dedicated to the rights and liberties of everyone. Ten years earlier, the NAACP had been established to advance justice in the wake of the Springfield, Illinois race riot. During its first summer, the ACLU denounced the lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minnesota who had allegedly raped a 17-year-old white girl. ACLU co-director Albert DeSilver wrote to Minnesota's governor volunteering assistance in “the preservation of civil liberty."

Weeks later, Minnesota Gov. Joseph A. A. Burnquist informed DeSilver that several men had been arrested in connection with the lynching. He did not tell DeSilver that none was convicted of anything serious.

Investigators realized, almost immediately, that the girl had not been raped. Nonetheless, the state tried seven Black men accused of participating in the fabricated crime. One was convicted and sentenced to hard time. That perversion of justice was not corrected until a century later when Minnesota granted the innocent man the first posthumous pardon in the state's history.

Much of the ACLU's early race-related work was similarly futile: highlighting racial atrocities America refused to stop. In 1921, the ACLU published three provocative pamphlets. The most innovative was “Debt-Slavery" by William Pickens, a sociologist and field secretary for the NAACP. Pickens argued that America had replaced chattel slavery with economic bondage and employed lynching as a form of enforcement. He saw the Elaine massacre as a defense of the “debt slave system."

The second pamphlet focused on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The third, “The Fight for Free Speech," warned that reactionary forces were ascendant and observed that Negroes, foreign-born groups, and tenant farmers were “conscious of the condition but incapable of outspoken resistance."

Back then, the ACLU supported racial justice but was not at the forefront of the fight, generally deferring to the NAACP. But it assiduously documented anti-Black violence and states' restrictions on “Negroes' rights." In 1929, founding executive director Roger Baldwin suggested a radical expansion of the ACLU's role, proposing that the organization work more vigorously on behalf of “Negroes in their fight for civil rights." Additionally, Baldwin established a seat on the board for the NAACP recognizing the special relationship with the organization on civil rights cases and invited James Weldon Johnson to serve at the founding of the ACLU.

​Documenting Discrimination

NAACP Secretary Walter White.

NAACP Secretary Walter White.

(Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1931, the ACLU issued " Black Justice," a groundbreaking study on discrimination. The report slammed laws and policies that forced Black people to attend segregated schools, barred their admission to "white" hospitals, and denied Black people a fair wage, trial by their peers, the right to vote, or the right to marry outside the race.

NAACP executive secretary Walter White called the publication "excellent publicity" for the NAACP's work. Baldwin also provided direct financial support to the NAACP through a foundation set up by Charles Garland, a young Harvard dropout who inherited a fortune he pledged to spend for "the benefit of poor as much as rich, of Black as much as white." Baldwin served as the foundation's secretary and its grants largely reflected his priorities.

In 1931, the ACLU took on the Scottsboro Boys case, which centered on nine Black youths charged with raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama. The suspects, after being pulled from the train, were rushed to trial in less than two weeks. The first two convictions came on the second day of trial. Two days later, eight of the nine stood convicted and sentenced to death. Jurors deadlocked on the fate of the ninth defendant, who was only 14.

The ACLU dispatched Hollace Ransdell, a Columbia-educated journalist, to investigate. Ransdell produced a detailed and influential report that made it clear the two women had made up the sexual assault story.

The boys' lawyers appealed to the state supreme court, which refused to overturn all but one conviction. Meanwhile, the NAACP and the Communist-backed International Labor Defense fought over which entity would represent the boys. Eventually, the lawyers came together and appealed to the Supreme Court, with longtime ACLU attorney Walter Pollak arguing the case. The court sided with Pollak, agreeing that the state, in denying the defendants their choice of counsel, had violated their right to due process.

Alabama shrugged off that and every other reversal, including two more landmark Supreme Court decisions that overturned the convictions because of the exclusion of Black jurors. Finally, in 1937, the Alabama prosecutor exonerated three of the defendants, releasing two others because they were juveniles at the time of the alleged crime. The others eventually found their way out of prison, their lives shattered because Alabama refused to admit that whites had lied about Blacks.

A Convening of Allies

In this July 26, 1937 file photo, police escort two of the five recently freed "Scottsboro Boys," Olen Montgomery, wearing glasses, third left, and Eugene Williams, wearing suspenders, fourth left, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York.

In this July 26, 1937 file photo, police escort two of the five recently freed "Scottsboro Boys," Olen Montgomery, wearing glasses, third left, and Eugene Williams, wearing suspenders, fourth left, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York.

(Credit: AP Photo/File)

World War II provided yet another occasion for America, and the ACLU, to reflect on racial prejudice. The ACLU's major wartime anti-racism effort was the Committee on Racial Discrimination in the War Effort. Convened in early 1942, the committee was chaired by author Pearl Buck, who envisioned involving "all existing white or mostly white organizations" in a movement that would end discrimination not just in government, but in housing, wages, trade unions, and throughout society.

Winifred Raushenbush, a freelance writer hired as executive secretary, authored a widely praised pamphlet titled How to Prevent a Race Riot in Your Home Town. In "every war period the danger of race riots in great," observed Raushenbush, who suggested that with a little planning, foresight, and good will, riots could be avoided.

The committee never achieved Buck's ambitious goals, but it garnered a lot of attention. And it brought together some 30-plus organizations — including Alpha Kappa Alpha, the American Jewish Committee, the YWCA, and the National Lawyers Guild — to ruminate on race.

​Japanese Incarceration and Internal Disagreement

Japanese-Americans transferring from train to bus at Lone Pine, California, bound for war relocation authority center at Manzanar, April, 1942.

Japanese-Americans transferring from train to bus at Lone Pine, California, bound for war relocation authority center at Manzanar, April, 1942.

(credit: Library of Congress)

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, America's military classified Japanese Americans as a security threat. Under an executive order signed by President Roosevelt, some 115,000 Japanese American residents (most of whom were U.S. citizens) were targeted for relocation from a designated exclusion zone along the West Coast.

Baldwin wrote a public letter to the president addressing the "unprecedented" order that authorized the exclusion zone, calling it "open to grave question on the constitutional grounds of depriving American citizens of their liberty and use of their property without due process of law." But the organization's board was split on the order, with a large segment of Roosevelt loyalists reluctant to criticize the war effort. The organization ultimately adopted a resolution acknowledging the government's constitutional right "to remove persons … when their presence may endanger national security."

That resolution left the ACLU's lawyers in a bind, as it was difficult to argue the internment policy was legally wrong but also constitutionally permitted. Despite the legal handcuffs it had manufactured for itself, and following internal debate, the ACLU ultimately mounted a series of challenges to Japanese internment. On June 21, 1943, the Supreme Court decided in Hirabayashi v. United States that the evacuation order was legal. That same day the court also decided in Minoru Yasui v. United States that the military-imposed curfew was a legitimate response to the harms threatened by the war.

Two other cases were not decided until after the War Department had concluded that internment was no longer a military necessity. In December 1944, the Supreme Court decided the government had no right to detain loyal citizens. It also found that ACLU client Fred Korematsu, in defying the exclusion order, had broken the law. It wasn't until the 1980s that Korematsu's conviction was vacated, and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, issuing a formal government apology and granting monetary reparations to surviving Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

​Seeking Justice in the South

Thurgood Marshall, seen here in the White House in June 1967, the year he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall, seen here in the White House in June 1967, the year he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives and Records Administration)

In September 1963, four Black girls were killed while attending church in Alabama when a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded. The following morning, local lawyer Charles Morgan delivered a fiery speech that attracted national attention: "Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb."

Two decades earlier, in 1940, Thurgood Marshall created the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall, who served on the ACLU's board from 1938 to 1946, was the architect of a brilliant legal strategy to dismantle segregation. The ACLU submitted amicus briefs for some of the LDF cases during this period including Brown v. Board of Education. By 1964, the ACLU approved a new regional office in Atlanta charged with overseeing the growing array of initiatives attacking racial oppression in the South. Morgan was named director.

Working in partnership with other civil rights organizations, the office became deeply involved in virtually every major civil rights issue in the South: expanding voting rights; ending the exclusion of Black jurors; and eliminating racially motivated sentencing disparities. The ACLU also fought prohibitions against interracial marriage, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1967 in the landmark case, Loving v. Virginia.

As the ACLU plunged into these civil rights battles, it also pushed the Warren court into rethinking criminal justice, advocating for reforms that reverberate today. That process began with the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter charged with burgling a pool hall in Florida who the Supreme Court decided was entitled to representation at public expense. Although the ACLU was not directly involved in that case, it was a driving force in those that followed. Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) revolved around Danny Escobedo, who was suspected of killing his brother-in-law. Escobedo was not informed he had a right to retain a lawyer or to remain silent, and made incriminating statements that led to his conviction. The ACLU argued his case before the Supreme Court, which concluded that Escobedo's rights had been violated.

Gideon was the prelude to Miranda v. Arizona, in 1966. Ernesto Miranda was accused of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman; he confessed without being informed of his right to remain silent. The ACLU argued that Miranda's treatment violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court agreed, and Miranda rights were born.

At the time, those cases were not considered part of a racial justice agenda, but as the racial inequities in America's criminal justice system became clearer, the ACLU came to view its criminal justice work in a new light.

Ira Glasser (at left in beige suit) marching in Atlanta, GA, with Coretta Scott King (center) and others in 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

Ira Glasser (at left in beige suit) marching in Atlanta, GA, with Coretta Scott King (center) and others in 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

(Credit: photographer unknown, Studio III: 1021 Northside Drive, Atlanta, GA 30318; 404-875-0161)

Ira Glasser believes the ACLU's deepening involvement in racial issues was inevitable. Glasser joined the New York Civil Liberties Union in 1967 and became its director in 1970. Eight years later he succeeded Aryeh Neier as executive director of the national ACLU, and quickly found himself immersed in issues of race. The Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to combat discrimination against Black voters in the South, was scheduled to expire in 1982. President Reagan opposed its extension. The ACLU became a leader in the fight to preserve the law, eventually winning passage of a new bill which Reagan signed.

As Glasser reflected on the ACLU's myriad issues, he "began to see who was affected by these violations of civil liberties and this explosive growth of incarceration, and who was arrested, and who was prosecuted, and who was searched … They were all Brown and Black." Glasser came to see the Nixon administration's drug war as "a successor system to slavery, continuing and expanding skin color subjugation."

Those insights helped to broaden the organization's racial justice agenda, leading to an increased focus on issues such as racial profiling and stop and frisk. In the late 1990's, Michelle Alexander, who was at the time Director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, instigated a national campaign titled "Driving While Black or Brown" which revealed discriminatory policing practices and led to the introduction of legislation in 44 states to stop them.

Civil Liberties Are Civil Rights

Text in image: Let me ask you something... Should Driving While Black be a crime?

In 2006, the ACLU formalized its investment in the fight against racial inequality by creating a national Racial Justice Program. Anthony Romero, a Puerto Rican native of the Bronx and the ACLU's first executive director of color, believed, like Glasser, that race was inextricably intertwined with other ACLU concerns. Dennis Parker, a Harvard Law graduate who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, became the program's first director. Parker noted that race was woven throughout the organization's many issue areas: "Race really informs … every area that the ACLU works [in]: women's rights, disability, or voting."

Parker knew working for the ACLU would be different from working for an organization with racial justice as its paramount mission: "At LDF … we were advocating on behalf of Black people. There may have been questions about what would be best … but it was not a question of should we be representing the Klan."

Parker's observation touched on a reality that has bedeviled the ACLU from the beginning: the occasional friction between its commitment to racial justice and also to free expression. The issue was vexing enough in the 1930's that the ACLU released a pamphlet titled "Shall We Defend Free Speech for Nazis in America?" The organization concluded that the best defense of one group's right to speak was a defense of all groups' rights.

When the ACLU was attacked in 1978 for defending Nazis intent on marching on Skokie, a Chicago suburb that housed Holocaust survivors, the answer was much the same. David Goldberger, the young Jewish lawyer leading the case, pointed out that policies Skokie employed against Nazis could also be used against Jewish war veterans. The power to shut down speech, Goldberger argued, was too important to be left to local officials: "Think of such power in the hands of a racist sheriff."

ACLU legal director David Goldberger, left, appears at a Chicago Press conference with ACLU Executive Director David M. Hamlin. Both men were happy with the court's decision to allow Frank Collin and his Nazi group to hold a rally in Chicago's Marquette Park.

ACLU legal director David Goldberger, left, appears at a Chicago Press conference with ACLU Executive Director David M. Hamlin. Both men were happy with the court's decision to allow Frank Collin and his Nazi group to hold a rally in Chicago's Marquette Park.


That view became so entrenched that in 2017, the ACLU represented a white supremacist group determined to hold a rally in Charlottesville. After the event resulted in a young woman's death, friends of the ACLU second guessed the organization's decision, and rigorous internal conversations about the choice to defend racists took place. The conversations resulted in case selection guidelines to assist ACLU staff in weighing the competing interests that may arise when work to protect speech may raise tensions with racial justice, reproductive freedom, or where the content of the speech conflicts with ACLU policies on those matters. The guidelines also suggest that the ACLU will generally not defend armed protest because of the chilling effect it can have on free speech.

In the ACLU's 1920 birth announcement, the new organization swore to fight "all attempts to violate the right of free speech, free press, and peaceful assemblage." That position was essentially unchanged when Roger Baldwin proposed his grand expansion. Baldwin did not foresee the possibility of that position conflicting with the defense of racial justice. Indeed, in an exchange with his biographer Peggy Lamson, Baldwin expressed frustration with Black ACLU board members who did not share his view.

ACLU Board member James Weldon Johnson, seen here in 1932.

ACLU Board member James Weldon Johnson, seen here in 1932.

Credit: ACLU

James Weldon Johnson, in Baldwin's view, "couldn't see much beyond the use of civil liberties for the equality of Blacks." As Baldwin saw it, Black board members' commitment to racial equality blinded them to the larger picture. What the larger picture is, of course, depends on one's perspective.

As eager as Baldwin was to expand the ACLU's involvement in issues of race, he never saw that as the ACLU's main battle, though it was still listed among the organization's top priorities in its first annual report in 1920. He saw no need to balance the demands of racial justice with those of free speech. The modern ACLU has a more complicated view.

As Romero put it, "If I were the head of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, I wouldn't bring a Nazi case. If I were the head of the First Amendment Center, I would bring every Nazi case and not worry about the racial justice implications. I think part of what is magical and different and kind of vexing is an organization that's trying to accomplish both and say, 'They're both equally important to us.'"

That perspective suggests that an organization seriously devoted to both free speech and racial justice is obligated to tackle a question with no obvious answer: In a world where unrestrained speech is routinely weaponized to frustrate justice, what combination of rights, restraints and responsibilities moves the nation toward the most moral version of itself? The ACLU has come to see that civil rights and civil liberties are inextricable, and the protection of the latter is inherently tied to the long fight for racial justice.

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Bank: The Post Office

One in four Americans are unbanked or underbanked. This is in part because because banks across the country are closing branches, or penalizing those who don't have large savings. This means that 64 million Americans — disproportionately Black and Brown people — can't easily access basic financial services and are forced to pay thousands a year in fees for alternatives.

But one solution to this disparity is within our reach, it's actually just down the street from you: the post office.

The U.S. Postal Service has the infrastructure to provide basic financial services at all of its branches. With an office in every ZIP code nationwide and trust within the community, banking at the most accessible institution in America could create a public option needed to put millions of families in greater control of their finances.

Joining us on At Liberty this week to talk about why postal banking is key to closing the racial wealth gap is Rakim Brooks, a senior campaign strategist at the ACLU who is managing our new Systemic Equality campaign.

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To End Systemic Racism, Ensure Systemic Equality

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors. But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws. These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower. We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family. The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all. To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point. Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

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