Two thirds of Americans eligible to vote cast their ballots in the 2020 election, a record share of eligible voters. Voting surged in every state in the union.
Voting Restriction Legislation Surging
The record vote was bad news for people wanting to maintain white supremacy. Laws governing voting in the United States are almost exclusively the job of state legislatures. State legislatures are busy now, with more than 250 proposals to restrict access to voting. That’s more than seven times as many such bills as there were at this time last year.
Fortunately, legislatures are also busy with more than 700 bills that would make it easier for people to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, these bills primarily seek to expand access to mail voting and early voting, ease voter registration, and restore voting rights to persons with past convictions. In the state of Washington, where I live, we’ve voted entirely by mail for years. Republicans have introduced a bill to stop that. Members of the party that usually tries to cut government spending are proposing in SB143 to mandate the reintroduction of voting machines and sealable voter containers all over the state.
Fighting Voting Rights
Opponents to open access to voting have had a 150-year head start. They started even as Congress was considering the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves, and protected a few legal rights. President Andrew Johnson warned in his message to Congress against conferring “upon the negroes the privilege of voting, and to disfranchise such number of white citizens as will give the former a clear majority at all elections in the Southern States.” Johnson saw Black empowerment as a nightmare, declaring the United States to be, “[A] country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am President, it will be a government for white men.”
Reconstruction of Oppression
He needn’t have worried. The states of the old Confederacy responded viciously, with at least 6,400 lynchings of African Americans, accompanied by mutilation, rapes, and arson. Efforts of African Americans to vote met with some of the most horrific mass lynchings. White people also found more insidious ways to keep former slaves from voting. They instituted poll taxes. They designed elaborate literacy tests, when African Americans had been prohibited by law from receiving an education. (And if those tests and taxes kept out some poor white people, oh, well. That’s a price supremacists have been willing to pay from the beginning.)
The post-Civil War repression is only one of the episodes covered in Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. It makes for grim reading. According to the back-cover blurb, “[E]very time African Americans have made advances toward full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate, relentless rollback of any gains.” She outlines the violence white people resorted to trying to keep their oppressed Black workforce in the South during the Great Migration, the choice to devastate the U.S. education system instead of integrating it, the systematic work at rolling back the civil rights gains of the 1960s, and the racist rage that followed the election of Barack Obama as President.
The Voting Rights Act Made a Difference
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared the racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. Angry Southern whites pushed back, with new restrictions on voting. By 1960, fewer than two percent of Black adults in Mississippi were registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the non-white population had not registered to vote, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. Accompanying legislation outlawed poll taxes.
By 1969, Black turnout in Mississippi elections was at 59 percent. That’s turnout, not just registration. This phenomenal increase took place all over the South, where it seemed to come as big surprise to a fair number of white folks. I was living in Memphis during most of this time. Some white voters reacted with anger. Some figured there must be fraud involved. As a high school and college student, I was involved in a small way in some investigations by local Republicans into voting rolls and records, searching for evidence of fraud. We found none. But the searches continued. (I write more about our search for fraud in this week’s newsletter. Please sign up for it at the bottom of this page.)
Fighting the Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act originally applied only to states in the old Confederacy, but over the years other jurisdictions were “bailed in,” because of racially discriminatory laws and policies. They included towns and counties in Arizona, Idaho, Alaska, California, New York, Wyoming, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. The racist practices in these were not necessarily against African Americans; some affected Native Americans, Latinx, or other racial minorities. Once jurisdictions could show they had changed their practices, they could be free from federal supervision, and numerous counties did that.
Other states sued and legislated, trying to get rid of the Voting Rights Act, and finding different ways to undermine its intention. One of the most successful has been requiring picture IDs, a requirement that sounds innocuous enough, until you realize that picture IDs sometimes cost more than poor people can afford, and may require documentation, such as a birth certificate, that people born in poor circumstances simply may not have.
Georgia required a driver’s license or passport, documentation of a social security number, and two addressed items of mail—specifying a bank statement (20 percent of African Americans do not have a bank account) and a utility bill, which would likely go to the property owner. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker pushed for requiring a government issued photo ID to vote, and then closed the Department of Motor Vehicles Offices in Democratic areas and extended the hours in Republican strongholds. Several other states used similar tactics.
Shelby County v. Holder
In Shelby County, Alabama, election commissioners violated the Voting Rights Act in redrawing the district boundaries of the lone Black councilman. The percentage of African Americans in his precinct went from 69 to 29 percent, and he lost the election. A long court battle ensued, and the Supreme Court decided that the rationale for the Voting Rights Act was now obsolete, that its work had been done. It was no longer constitutional for the Department of Justice to place a jurisdiction under its oversight.
Coming up to Now
Right after the Supreme Court ruled, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, all passed what author Anderson calls “a compendium of voter suppression laws.” Within a year, 13 more states had passed restriction statutes, all under the guise of protecting the integrity of the ballot box. They have had the effect, however, of making it more difficult for African Americans, Latinx, Native American, and poor white people to vote.
This legislation is overwhelmingly Republican, and obviously aimed at people likely to vote Democratic. The reason for it is clear: as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham observed in 2012, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” It’s clearly a tactic that will lose in the long term, since the United States’ days as an overwhelmingly white majority country are nearly over. In 1960, before new immigration laws eliminated racial quotas, the United States census showed was 88.6% of Americans were white. The 2020 numbers so far show us as 59.7% white. Estimates vary, but it’s clear the United States may be a majority-minority country in my lifetime. And I’m old.
What It Means to Be White—Now
For some of us, what it means to be white now means to live in fear. There is a pervasive—and not entirely irrational—fear that once we are no longer in the majority, people with a different skin color will turn and oppress us. Our legislatures, which are still overwhelmingly white, are in fact setting us up for that to happen. I mean, why not look at the inevitable and find ways to get along?
Some of us are, to be sure, vicious racists, like J.W. Milam. Milam was a Mississippian who tortured and murdered Emmett Till. After his acquittal in 1955, he said, “N*ggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids.” Some of us are so disappointed with the result of the 2020 Presidential election that we are deeply convinced it was fraudulent. The reasoning goes that we have to keep non-white people from voting to have clean elections.
What could illustrate the systemic nature of racism better than that?
Many of us, though, do not want to live in a racist society. I, like many others, am only learning now how deeply racist it is, and how much work it’s going to take to dismantle it.
I always come back to the importance of voting. People of all classes (and, yes, we do have them), colors, and conditions of life should have an equal say in what happens to all of us. What I’ve been learning has, more and more, reminded me of a quote attributed to anarchist activist and writer Emma Goldman: ““If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
It can change everything, Emma. And “they” keep trying to.
For Further Reading
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson. This book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and a basketful of other awards when it was published in 2016. My copy has an afterword from 2017, with some observations about the election of Donald Trump. Her book is thoroughly documented; 82 of its 280 pages are notes. Don’t read it at bedtime.
This post is the seventh in a series, “What Does It Mean to be White?”
Last week’s post was, “What It Means to be White–and Poor.”