Human agency as the right to live, to be free, to self-determine your existence characterized the initial struggle for enslaved Africans in the American empire. The long prelude to becoming “American” played out on a bloody stage. And though less overtly bloody, this insidious political drama continues unabated.
The antebellum era south, unfettered by the U.S. Constitution, through its slave system and social codes securely presided over the lives of African people. The notion of a Black political voice existed only in the minds of those enslaved, emancipated, and escaped who determined to imagine political freedom within the nation. Conceding that the scale of plantation slavery in northern locales was moderate by comparison to the south, the white political control was no less thorough. Indeed, prominent New England families like the Browns and De Wolf’s, both from Rhode Island, were elite financiers in the transatlantic trade in human beings. Because money and politics always go together in an American political rubric, access to the ballot stands as both a gateway and barrier. During the lead up to the Civil War political elites in states like Rhode Island and New York effectively negated any designs black males had on the franchise:
In 1822 Rhode Island denied that black men were eligible to vote in its elections . . . In New York an 1821 state constitutional convention raised the property qualification for black voters while eliminating it for white voters. This denied the right to vote to nearly all of the ten thousand black men who had previously voted in the state.
An 1838 political convention in Pennsylvania sketched out modifications to the state’s constitution which secured the enfranchisement of “all white males and disfranchised all black males.” Discontent with this repressive maneuver, black Pennsylvanians for the next two decades sought to have it overturned as they “petitioned Congress to help them gain equal access to the polls. But their efforts failed.”
After the Civil War three Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth emerge out of a particular moment in which ruling class elites are forced to host a conversation on the sociopolitical status of those once kept as line items on asset statements. New civic, social and political definitions would be required to Constitutionally (re)classify the formerly enslaved.
If Blacks were no longer property then were they somehow humans? If they were humans living among whites within the nascent State then were they citizens also? If they were citizens without the Constitutionally protected right of suffrage then what does citizenship mean? These were among the most important questions the U.S. government had to take up.
The thought that Blacks would be franchised and economically empowered congruent with white, propertied, and literate males was anathema to the Eurocentric ruling class establishment. What followed was a myriad of social, political, and outright violent measures designed to not only prevent Black males from voting but render them less inclined to even try. By now we all know the historical constellation erected to frustrate Black’s attempts at voting: literacy tests, the grandfather clause, poll taxes, voter intimidation and coercion, property qualifications, etc.
Today, blatant attempts to violate the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments where People of Color are concerned would almost certainly be universally decried. With the election of Barack Obama this current episode of African American voter disfranchisement was obliged to revise its pro-American political diction. It needed to appear as though it was protecting the sanctity of the constitutional right of the very people it would ultimately assail. Enter the Republicans.
In 2010 Congress saw a majority of Republicans take state house seats nation wide. That single election cycle increased by twelve the number of states with Republican majorities in their legislatures. One of their first collective political initiatives ensured that the exercise of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments would be measurably more difficult where voters of Color were concerned. With but a single exception Republicans introduced rigid voter ID bills which carried with them the effect of disfranchising significant numbers of Black and Latino voters and thereby negating important gains achieved after over a century of political struggle.
A recently release report by the Brennan Center for Justice titled Voting Law Changes in 2012 states that “Legislatures introduced and passed a record number of bills restricting the access to voting this year.” Republican advocates of the new laws have routinely argued that the passage of the legislation would significantly eliminate voter fraud. Aside from the fact that voter fraud nation wide has been at inconsequentially low levels, Democratic objections, according to the Brennan report, emphasize that,
. . . the new laws will make it much more difficult for eligible citizens to vote and to ensure that their votes are counted. In particular, they have pointed out that many of these laws will disproportionately impact low-income and minority citizens, renters, and students — eligible voters who already face the biggest hurdles to voting.
The report goes on to mention that nationally, eleven percent of all registered voters possess no photo ID. But even more significant percentages of minority voters, young and senior citizens alike, lack either state or college issued photo IDs. In some instances state legislatures have moved to actually eliminate legal provisions that once allowed student photo IDs as a legitimate form of identification. And it is precisely this minority population that Republican lawmakers have targeted in order to reduce voter turnout because they vote heavily the Democratic ticket.
If Democratic Representative John Lewis has said that “this year’s Republican-backed wave of voting restrictions has demonstrated that the fundamental right to vote is still subject to partisan manipulation.” Marcia Fudge, a Congresswoman from Ohio voices it more directly: “these efforts have and all-too familiar stench of the Jim Crow era.”
For example, in Colorado the new Republican Secretary of State, Scott Gessler, ordered that “inactive” (though registered) voters in predominantly Democratic districts not be mailed ballots even though they normally receive them — potentially disenfranchising nearly 73,000 registered voters in just two Colorado counties alone. Denver and Pueblo County Clerks Debra Johnson and Gilbert Ortiz have vowed to mail the ballots anyway, in defiance of Gessler. “The City and County of Denver has consistently provided all eligible voters with ease of access to the voting franchise and we plan to continue to do so . . .” said Johnson, preferring to battle Gessler in court, if necessary.
Republican controlled legislatures in no less than seven states have also moved to place strict, if not effectively inhibiting, regulations on organizations which coordinate voter registration drives. The Brennan report mentions that in one Florida county the League of Women Voters along with other voter registration organizations accounted for 62.7% of new voter registrants. Increases in African American voter participation have historically been the direct result of community-based voter registration drives. “African-American and Hispanic citizens in Florida are more than twice as likely to register to vote through such drives as white voters” cites the report.
Moreover, both Florida and Ohio have critically curbed early voting on Sundays (Ohio has eliminated it outright). Clearly, this political scheme is directed at African American citizens who, in disproportion to their white counterparts, tend to head to the ballot box on Sundays after church and when they are less likely to be at work or in school.
These are but a few examples of what amounts to African American voter suppression in an Obamasonian “colorblind” era. Like the malevolent poll taxes and literacy test of old, these forms of political management by the Republican establishment function as proxies for Jim Crow style racial management. Our political enemy has spoken. How will we respond?
Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. African Americans: a concise history. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2004.
[4-5] Brennan Voting Law Changes Report