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Last month, as “We the People” exercised our civil rights in voting on the direction the country would take in the coming years, our neglect of civil responsibility littered the landscape. And in that same month that shovels broke ground for a national monument honoring a slain civil rights leader, yet another state shoveled dirt on the grave of its commitment to racial dialogue and understanding. How soon we forget our promises. When people in Michigan went to the polls on Nov. 7, one ballot initiative they faced was Proposal 2: the so-called Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Proposal 2 would amend the state’s constitution to prohibit all affirmative action in the public domain. Programs for blacks, women and other racial minorities would be illegal. The initiative would affect university admissions policies, employment outreach and contracting opportunities. Proposal 2 passed by 58% to 42%. Just three years ago, however, the University of Michigan prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court, on the very issue of taking race into account in weighing individual applicants for admission to its law school. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the court in Grutter v. Bollinger, upheld the admissions policy, which sought to foster racial diversity in each entering class. The court held that such diversity was a compelling interest. O’Connor also expressed the court’s hope that a national commitment to address the underlying causes necessitating such state action would be fully successful in 25 years. Many in the civil rights community felt she was unduly optimistic. Ironically, as a result of two cases argued before the court on Dec. 4 over voluntary efforts to protect diversity in K-12 classrooms, Grutter’s legacy might not reach its fifth birthday, let alone its 25th. Class-only argument is flawed Critics of affirmative action often argue that we should focus on class and not race. We should spend our time, energy and dollars addressing poverty and its pernicious effects. Many of those supporting affirmative action feel race is still salient. And some of them doubt the sincerity behind the class-only argument. Even if race could be removed from the debate, would the support for broad and enduring class-based relief really come? And if it did, would more than only poor whites benefit? To the extent these reservations are held, both recent and distant history are not comforting. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina extinguished more than 1,500 lives along the Gulf Coast. It displaced 2 million people from their homes. It wrought billions of dollars in damage. And its aftermath exposed substantial rifts that still fall along class and racial lines. The pictures of people stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center were disturbing. Yet, more than a year later, a small fishing boat was still stranded in the middle of the street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The emptiness there is deafening. The need for a sustained effort on the Gulf Coast, both public and private, both federal and state, is clear. Yet, has our commitment ebbed? Last January, only months removed from Katrina, national news anchor Brian Williams addressed an increasing number of complaints his network had received about its continuing coverage of the Gulf Coast. “Enough!,” many people were writing. He responded that he would continue to address the region’s plight. Yet it seems that the injury to the people and the damage to the area are more enduring than our collective attention span. Affirmative action, of another sort, on the Gulf Coast is in jeopardy. This all sounds somewhat familiar. In the shadow of the Civil War, soon after the promises of freedom, citizenship and the right to vote were added to the U.S. Constitution, help for the race of newly freed slaves vanished. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands lasted roughly seven years. The political will to sustain it was short-lived. The period of Reconstruction itself quickly faded after 1877, with the Hayes-Tilden compromise that withdrew the remaining federal troops from the South. The freedmen were left to fend for themselves. New and eager citizens, with old and deep wounds, were given little to no help. It would take decades of struggle, and a movement nurtured by the sacrifice of a young minister from Georgia, to help realize those promises. We love our civil rights in this country, but we sometimes neglect our civil responsibilities. Whether the wounds have been inflicted by slave-holding forefathers or by Mother Nature, our sustained commitment to uplifting our brothers and sisters must not wane. To exercise our rights is a sign of freedom; to acknowledge our responsibilities is a sign of maturity. One can only hope that, by the time the monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is completed on the mall in Washington, that fishing boat in the Lower Ninth Ward will have been removed and hollow neighborhoods will have been revitalized with people and jobs. And somewhere, a young survivor of Katrina will be starting a bright future at one of our nation’s premier universities. Marvin H. Lett earned J.D. and LL.M. degrees from Harvard Law School, where his research addressed the 13th Amendment and originalism. He has taught legal writing at Howard University School of Law.

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