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February is the time for the ritual observance of Black History Month — a brief period when schools, government institutions and even commercial enterprises feel compelled to commemorate a handful of famous black folk who made substantial contributions to American history. It’s a gimmick, an awkward and superficial observance aimed at ameliorating the centuries spent dismissing black Americans as marginal or worse, and I don’t care for it.

But this February has been overwhelmed by some perplexing news events that give me reason to think that some black history lessons are in order. If white men in power are as cavalier about smearing black shoe polish on their faces to mock their fellow black citizens as news reports suggest, then we ought to have a serious discussion about history. Not black history, but American history. The sojourn of black people in this country is, after all, part and parcel of American history — not some footnote or sidebar that is separate and distinct from the story of this nation. And much of that story, if told accurately, must dwell on the brutality, oppression, and rank discrimination that black Americans have endured.

The popularity of minstrelsy and blackface in the 19th century came out of that era’s ugly insistence on white supremacy and black inferiority. In minstrel shows, white performers smeared their faces with burnt cork to lampoon black folk as lazy, stupid, libidinous and criminally inclined. As whites portrayed them, blacks were happily enslaved, desperately in need of the “civilizing” hand of their white masters.

Nor was this “entertainment” limited to the Deep South. A group of singing, dancing, strutting white men in blackface, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, first appeared at a New York City theater in 1843. The stereotypes endured long after the war ended.

And their success spawned many imitators. Frederick Douglass once called blackface minstrels “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

Perhaps the particulars of that history have largely been lost to many of the whites of our era who have found donning blackface funny. That group includes not only Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam but also Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted, days after controversy engulfed Northam, that he, too, had donned blackface as a college student. It also includes former Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, who resigned last month after photos emerged showing him in blackface at a Halloween Party in 2005.

But you need not know the particulars of history to know that this is a cruel form of mockery, a throwback to a time and place when black people were deemed inferior by law and custom. Ertel was certainly mocking the traumatized black victims of Katrina when he presented himself for a party wearing blackface and a shirt that read, “Katrina victim,” with fake boobs underneath. The party was held just two months after the massive storm that killed more than 1,800 people and devastated countless more. That’s funny?

Northam has, so far, refused to resign, insisting on presiding over a statehouse struggling in a tsunami of scandal. (Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would presumably take the office if Northam resigned, has been accused of sexual assault.) Indeed, after first apologizing for appearing in blackface in a photo in his medical school yearbook, he later said he wasn’t in the photo. (Northam did, however, admit to smearing black shoe polish on his face to imitate Michael Jackson during a college dance contest.) He plans to hire a private investigator, according to published reports, to solve the mystery of a how such a photo could have appeared on his yearbook page. In the picture, by the way, the person in blackface is standing next to someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, another costume meant to be … amusing?

It is hard to imagine that anything uplifting or inspiring can come out of these tawdry episodes, but perhaps a bit of commonsense instruction is enough: Blackface is offensive and suggestive, at the very least, of racism. That bit of history should be consigned to the dustbin.


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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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