A Whiff of Jim Crow

Against the Current, No. 153, July/August 2011

Malik Miah

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY and its rightwing base are on a concerted drive to suppress the vote in coming elections. The targets are African Americans, other ethnic minorities, the elderly and young.

Bogeyman reasons are given to justify these broadside attempts to suppress the voting rights of these groups. The number one tactic is to charge “ID fraud” aimed at poor Blacks and Latinos, and so-called illegal immigrants.

The Republican governors and state legislators (now aligned with the most extreme elements of the Tea Party movement) made this a priority after the 2008 presidential election. The right first targeted the community organization ACORN because of their work among the poor and organizing voter registration drives. Because of the capitulation of liberals and Democrats — many of whom joined the smear campaign — ACORN was destroyed.

Emboldened by that victory, the conservatives (backed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited corporate money in elections) decided to step up their attacks. It seemed possible to further limit voting rights as well as go after public sector unions, women’s rights and immigrants.

Wisconsin took the lead to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. Ohio, Michigan and other states with Republican governors are doing the same.

Arizona drew up the template for states to target undocumented workers. Some states like Alabama and Georgia have raised the bar to include provisions that make it illegal to rent or transport “illegal” immigrants. The Alabama law — which also demands that school districts check the immigration status of all entering students! — appeals to nativist fears and national security hysteria. The goal is to drive immigrants (not just illegals) from the states.

Progressive forces have done little to respond to this onslaught. The Obama administration at best is low keyed, if not actively complicit with some of the rightist attacks. The Obama White House, indeed, has deported more “illegal” immigrants in its first two years in office than Bush did in his final four.

Elected liberals are running as fast as they can to the center right, not fighting back. Many identify with the conservatives and adopt positions on deficits and spending cuts that hurt the poor. Medicare and Social Security are no longer “off the table” or safe, even as Democrats claim they will never allow these social guarantees to be fundamentally weakened.

To Suppress the Vote

In this context the attacks on voting rights for African Americans are facing more setbacks. President Barack Obama won many state votes in 2008 by narrow margins, including such a longtime rightwing bastion as North Carolina. His white vote was higher than John Kerry’s in 2004.

Rightwing think tanks began drafting a model resolution (used almost to the word in each state) to go after traditional Democratic Party voters, particularly public sector workers who are white, claiming that Obama is “not one of us,” and from elsewhere. The fact that Obama’s policies are mainstream center right did not matter; the goal of these smears was to win more white working-class votes.

African Americans, who back Obama by more than 95% in most states, were also targeted. The aim in this case is to deny Blacks their vote. The template legislation took aim at early voting (in person and by mail), absentee balloting and alleged identity fraud (mainly by requiring voters to show photo ID at the polling place.

Considering that many poor, unemployed and elderly citizens don’t have government-issued IDs or that the homeless don’t have addresses, these restrictions can mean many fewer voters.

Some laws narrow the time frames for early voting, by excluding Sundays when many Black church goers go to vote. According to The New York Times (June 6, 2011 editorial), referring to North Carolina: “More than half of the state’s Black votes were cast before Election Day [2008], compared with 40 percent of the white votes. A similar trend was evident elsewhere in the South, according to studies by the Early Voting Information Center, a nonpartisan academic center at Reed College in Oregon. Blacks voting early in the South jumped from about 13 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2008, according to the studies, significantly outpacing the percentage of whites.”

In Georgia, the legislature voted to shorten the in-person early voting period from 45 days to 21 days. Florida went further, cutting the early voting period to eight days from 14.

In Wisconsin, where the state legislators voted to strip public sector workers of union rights, the legislature also enacted laws requiring government issued IDs. This came soon after petitions were signed to recall six Republican legislators who voted to strip union rights.

The Obama Paradox

It is clear all these actions are aimed at suppression and discrimination. Some North Carolina Black lawmakers correctly call it a whiff of Jim Crow. The hallmark of the segregated South was to undermine Black participation rights by designing laws to prevent Black participation in the electoral process. What better way to maintain total white supremacy?

What’s striking about these moves to reverse the basic democratic voting rights of ethnic minorities is how it’s barely talked about by the Obama administration — another example of how liberal politics are shifting further rightward under the first Black president.

If the president were white, I suspect the civil rights groups would be marching on state houses and demanding action by the Justice Department. The problem today is that the Attorney General is also the first African American to hold that position.

This shows the fundamental paradox and contradiction of having the first Blacks as president and attorney general: African Americans have decided in the main to keep quiet rather than organize to press their rights and grievances, despite the disproportionate impact of the Great Recession on the Black communities.

When the acclaimed academic Cornel West stepped up to mildly criticize Obama and his policies, particularly regarding the plights of African-American communities, others in the Black elite like Al Sharpton came to Obama’s defense. In fact, Sharpton now works as a political shield for Obama. His activist past provides a nationalist and militant cover to speak out against those who want more from Obama.

The Congressional Black Caucus likewise is mild in putting pressure on Obama and the White House.

Without Resistance, Blows Will Continue

The reactionaries know this is the case. It is why they are pushing so hard on issues that would have been unthinkable even under George W. Bush without expecting a fierce national backlash and resistance.

The racist forces, especially the “birthers” wing of the Republican Party that includes the Tea Party movement, see the opportunity to roll back many of the historic gains of the civil rights era.

This is the irony of ironies that while things are getting worse for Blacks on every front, there has been little mobilization and action demanding change. Black unemployment is in the high double digits; job discrimination is still a fact of life; and housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are at record levels.

It is also true for Latinos and immigrants. Everyone knows that the right and the Republican Party are far worse than the Obama administration even as it moves to the right.

Most progressive, liberal and left forces have one hand tied behind their backs because of this de facto strategy of not rocking the boat in fear of the worse evil of a far right president. It shows — if any proof were needed — that a strong independent left movement is needed. For now the far right has the upper hand and the traditional and left liberal organizations are reeling.

The voter suppression drive is winning because of that sentiment and paralysis. If the rights and gains of the working class and poor, especially African Americans, are left further behind, it means little to those who care if Obama wins a second term.

Without sustained resistance by labor, women’s rights and civil rights groups to the far right — glimmers of such are seen in Wisconsin and Ohio — more setbacks are inevitable.

July/August 2011, ATC 153