The fight for voting rights didn’t begin and end with the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. With the midterm elections just over one week away, minorities across the country are still battling discriminatory voter suppression laws that could prevent hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote.
In Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy, American novelist, playwright, and essayist Darryl Pinckney explains that despite some Republicans’ best efforts, black Americans have no intention of ceding their hard-won rights. In the excerpt below, Pinckney explains why conservative legislatures are trying to keep minorities from the voting booth — and how it could backfire on them.
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We complained all that summer of the 2012 campaign about the amount of e-mail, but the electronic barrage turned out to have been a manifestation of a sophisticated, secretly confident campaign. The advantage that the Republican Party had when awash with the mailing lists of the Christian Right all those Lee Atwater and Karl Rove years ago had gone with the changes in the technology of mass communication. As a consequence, Obama’s campaign had something of the insurgent atmosphere of going over the heads of politicians to speak directly to the people. Obama surprised a number of people during the 2012 campaign when he logged on to the entertainment, news, and social-networking website Reddit.
The 2012 election told us that the Solid South of the Republicans was weakening because of the changed demographics of the region, including the fact that black people have been moving back down to the Old Country for the first time since World War II. They are leaving northern cities and towns. The West is speaking Spanish; openly gay men and lesbians are being counted as 5 percent of the electorate. Blacks outvoted whites. In response, the right wing has reverted to the customs of voter suppression and attempts to redraw districts, and succeeded in passing legislation that made photo IDs mandatory for voting in many states.
At the time of the 2012 presidential election, thirty-one states had some kind of photo ID requirement for voters; seven had less strict laws; five states had such laws under judicial review; and four had tough measures in place. It was not easy for some segments of the population to get the ID, something middle-class lawmakers seemed to have a hard time believing. Photo ID requirements were not only a factor down South.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008. But when Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature and governor enacted a strict new photo ID law in 2012, a judge granted a temporary injunction against its implementation on the grounds that to try to put it into effect so soon before the election would most likely result in the disqualification of eligible voters. A federal court in Texas struck down its voter ID law in the summer of 2012 because it would impose “unforgiving burdens on the poor.” Republicans in Wisconsin lamented that if it had had a voter ID law, Romney would have won the state.
Word leaked out of Florida that the Republicans tried to stop early voting, because the indications were that it was going in Obama’s favor. Ta-Nehisi Coates maintained in his blog for The Atlantic Monthly shortly after the 2012 election that voter suppression backfired in Ohio, that trying to confine early voting to weekdays only made people more determined to cast their votes. What is good for minorities is good for the nation as a whole. The civil rights movement had given the U.S. a way to escape McCarthyism. Now the civil rights movement must become a human rights movement. It is altogether striking that on election day Twitter kept up morale among people who resolved not to be moved, no matter the length of the line or the hour. In a story on Obama’s techno power, U.S. News & World Report listed Flickr, Digg, LinkedIn, and Myspace among several websites that figured in his having had so much more influence in social media than his opponent.
In The Audacity of Hope, the traditions of Congress and how it is supposed to legislate matter to Obama. He almost sounds like a good old boy thrilled to walk the corridors of power. Then came legislative battles as seen from the Oval Office—and Obama deployed Twitter. Similar instant-message pressure from constituents influenced the congressional vote on health care, raising the possibility that the digital age could bring the direct democracy that the Founding Fathers mistrusted, which is why we have the strangeness of the Electoral College to begin with.
We had been waiting since 1972 for the youth vote— white youth—to show up. Facebook told us that the young—white kids—finally had and that social media such as Facebook probably did as much if not more to get out this vote than knocking on doors did. Facebook was studying the effects of its campaign applications and found that it may have delivered as many as 320,000 new young voters to the polls in 2012. It predicted that because of its apps, these young voters would become habitual voters sympathetic to the Democratic Party. The friend list seemed beyond Republican reach. The White House’s and Obama’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are among the most followed in the world.
In a documentary made in 1963, James Baldwin can be seen talking to unemployed black youth in San Francisco. In answer to their hopelessness, he insists that they can be anything they set their minds to. “There will be a Negro president of this country, but it will not be the country we are sitting in now,” Baldwin assures them. He was right. “Dear White America, You are not alone. Yours sincerely, the Dreadful Sundry of the World.” A week after the 2012 election, The New York Times published graphs charting the blocs of voters Obama had won—women, the under-thirties, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, gay people, the unmarried, working mothers of young children, people with graduate degrees, people without high school diplomas, Jews, Catholics, people in big cities, and poor people.
Social questions do not advance uniformly. For instance, few heroes of the civil rights era had sexual politics that today would be considered progressive. In 1964, Stokely Carmichael made his infamous remark that the only position of women in the SNCC was “prone” and we’re not surprised by his black macho, even if his defenders say that that was not the real Stokely. However, we are surprised that it was Bayard Rustin who blocked having a woman speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. According to Dorothy Height’s memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates (2003), Rustin argued that black women would be represented because they were already active in the organizations sponsoring the march. We might think that because Rustin was gay and other civil rights figures conspired to sideline him, he should have had Baldwin’s sensitivity to black women’s history.
After the 2012 election, I thought that Republicans would hurl themselves onto the Latino vote, like seals slamming into a bright big school of fish, especially in Texas, which is 38 percent Hispanic and where one in five Hispanics in America lives. But in 2012 the Hispanic vote was 48 percent of those eligible, down from 49.9 percent in 2008. More Hispanics are registered as Democrats than as Republicans. Yet these days the newspapers report Latino disillusionment with the electoral process. This detachment may be related to how unwelcome white-controlled institutions can make a Latino person feel. A friend of mine who teaches primary school in Los Angeles County was stunned when the school’s principal told her that the salaries of the special tutors she proposed for her Spanish-speaking students would come from her paycheck. It is not entirely clear that the Republicans want the Hispanic vote to increase, though immigration is maybe an issue they could get their right wing to compromise on.
However, women’s issues are, for reasons of prejudice, past discussion for most conservatives. Women were more of a voting bloc in 2012. Women were openly voting in women’s interests, and therefore voting against the Republican platform. The increase in the black vote in 2012 to 66 percent of those eligible was due to a high turnout among black women. The Census Bureau tells us that there are fifty-three million unmarried women in the U.S. They alone comprise 25 percent of the electorate. Stop, children, what’s that sound. Everybody look what’s going down, I heard. I assumed it was Hillary, the forty-fifth president, coming around the mountain.
I have a few hip friends, black and white, who didn’t vote in 2012. They have never voted since I’ve known them, citizens who say that it makes no difference which major party wins. The matter of which political party gets to appoint judges doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it does to most black people. There is no such thing as not voting, David Foster Wallace said. It’s the faith I grew up in. I lied to my parents in 1980 about having voted, a year when I was too out of it to walk one city block to register.
But in the faith I grew up in, a central tenet holds that American justice is on our side. Tocqueville and the Whig interpretation of history are on our side. America stands for progress, of which the expansion and defense of democracy have been a necessary part. The U.S. has a lot to answer for, starting with the “a slave is only three-fifths of a person” formula that the Founding Fathers came up with. Some might start with the displacement or decimation of the tribal nations that were already here. But the historical truth and the Constitution will agree in the long run. It is a document with a conscience. We just have to show up every two years. This is what my father and my mother taught my sisters and me.
I used to think it was funny that when my parents first voted in the suburban township where we moved in 1966, the polling station was in a country club that didn’t even admit Jews. Now I see my mother make a face and dismiss the situation as nothing. I’d never thought what a humiliating experience that might have been for her, she who did not believe in black country clubs either.
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Reprinted from Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Darryl Pinckney with permission from New York Review Books, 2014
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