Holdgruen: Alabama ID laws, license office closures show institutional racism

Institutional racism is poisoning America’s democracy. The recent shutdown of 31 Alabama Driver License Division offices—in addition to Alabama’s voter ID law—is a prime example of how our political institutions purposely disadvantage people of color.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is set to close 31 offices in 28 Alabama counties. Many of these counties are considered to be in Alabama’s “Black Belt”—black voters make up more than 75 percent of registered voters in these counties. These closures mean people may have to drive extremely long—and for some near impossible—distances to obtain driver’s licenses.

The accessibility of obtaining driver’s licenses is crucial for Alabama voters because of Act 2011-673: Alabama’s voter ID law. The law states that Alabama citizens must show a photo ID to be able to vote.

A driver’s license is the common choice of photo ID for most people, but other choices are a non-driver’s license photo ID or a passport. Unfortunately, acquiring many forms of identification requires a visit to a local Driver License Division office.

It is a red flag when a majority of black voters have limited access to these documents. The closure of offices in these particular counties is not just coincidental—it is strategic. These closures paired with the ID law can decrease the number of black individuals who will be able to vote in Alabama. This case has the qualities of institutional racism on a state level. Two state policies that seem—at the outset—to be unrelated actually work together to enforce those policies in order to disadvantage people of color.

Institutional racism is one of the worst problems plaguing our country right now because it is difficult to address and change on a large scale. This is because a lot of citizens and people in power benefit from institutional racism.

Our prison system, for example, applies significant institutional racism. People of color are racially profiled by police and are disproportionately represented in prisons. These people are then more likely to end up back in prison after being released because of poverty resulting from the difficulty of finding gainful employment after having been incarcerated. Institutions that make it difficult for the previously incarcerated to find jobs disadvantage the people of color who were racially profiled by police in the first place.

It is difficult to address this institutional racism because it is difficult to prove that racial bias exists and that white, middle-class people benefit from this bias. In relation to Alabama, neither of the policies implemented were inherently bad or illegal; but when we see the clear racial boundaries of the counties chosen for closure, we must question the motives and implications of these policies.

Driver License Division offices are state agencies, so it makes sense that they would shut down if the state cannot afford to fund them. But when we see that Alabama’s voter ID law, paired with these closures, targets people of color—whether intentionally or not—we should question why there are no other policies in place to prevent shutdown.

The ability to vote is a constitutional right. Our country needs to recognize and address instances of institutional racism that prevent citizens from exercising their rights.