Last month, Georgia Republican state representatives, still seething after absorbing the ignominious defeat of their preferred presidential and senate candidates, ushered sweeping voting “reforms” through the Georgia legislature. The omnibus reform bill — it contained ninety-eight pages — was signed by Brian Kemp, Georgia’s current Republican governor. Joining Mr. Kemp for the signing were half a dozen white men with masks, staring down at the bill as Kemp signed it into law.
Republican officials, citing the big lie of rigged elections proffered by Donald Trump, have hailed the bill as an important expansion of voter protections and voting rights. But Crooked Donald Trump praised the passage of the bill, so you know Republicans are dissembling and spouting lies. The Election Integrity Act of 2021, or SB-202, restricts voting by adding new identification requirements, criminalizing the distribution of food and water to voters who wait in lines, curtailing the placement of ballot boxes, and giving Georgia state officials the authority to wrest power from county election boards, denying municipalities agency over their own elections. As is usually the case, these new changes exact a deleterious effect on communities of color.
Conservative Republicans, sensing a rapidly changing country and fearing a loss of influence, are now deathly afraid of minorities exerting their power and influence through the ballot box. So in response to this new reality, conservatives choose to exact a type of violence upon vulnerable populations, literally requiring that these people wait in line for an unlimited amount of hours as they go thirsty from water deprivation and starve for food.
My sister and I talk to each other on the phone every Sunday. The first Sunday after the passage of SB-202, I called her with Georgia on my mind.
“You see what’s happening in Georgia right?” I said. “Their homeboy, Donald Trump, was soundly defeated.”
“Yep, soundly,” said my sister.
“And Georgia voters elected their first ever black Senator and they voted for their first Jewish Senator too. So, of course the racists had to spring into action. Can you imagine their reaction? Faces as red as tomatoes, their jowls jiggling as they scream ‘This can’t be happening! This can’t be happening!’”
My sister laughed and said, “They are all freaking crazy. They’ve made it a crime to give people food and water while they wait in long lines, the same lines that their voter suppression laws will be causing. It’s evil and psychotic. I can’t believe the nonsense.”
“Searching for a problem instead of a solution.”
“Yes. They’re looking to create problems with the laws so they can have an excuse for the state government to take over the election apparatuses in the cities,” said my sister.
“Exactly, I know,” I said. “This bill is nothing but an attack. An attack against traditionally underserved communities. The law is just as bad as a cop shooting an innocent black person for walking in the wrong neighborhood; the two actions are deliberate, and are the in same vein of racialized crime. I mean, can you imagine it? State officials don’t like the election results of a certain county with a significant black population, so they just sweep in and take over the county. It’s bullshit.”
“Forget about fielding better candidates or changing your policy to reflect the change that is going on in the country. Oh no, they can’t do that. Republicans just want to rig the election so that they can keep on being jerks. It’s sick.”
“And yet, change keeps on happening. We’ve had the first black president, the first black, Asian, and female vice president. They’ve got a black female mayor in Chicago, the first black male mayor in Montgomery, Alabama, and a black female mayor is assuming the reins in the city of Boston. Boston! There was never a black mayor in Boston until now.”
“Yep. Some people want to keep going backwards, but time keeps moving forward. We are not going back to the past, no matter what those fools in Georgia and other “red states” try to do.”
We are not going back to the past. My sister’s proclamation prompted me to ruminate about black history and voting.
Black people were integral to the construction the White House.
Construction of the hallowed building began in 1792, and black people were not the first choice of the building’s administrators. They’d opted to conscript European workers first, before eventually turning to black people — freemen and slaves — after recruitment efforts for more European workers yielded piddling results. Slaves dug and cut the stones and Scottish workers smoothed and laid the stones, providing the foundation upon which the institution of the American presidency was built. Over two hundred slaves worked with blue collar white laborers, Scottish and Irish immigrants, and other people existing at the lower rungs of society to ultimately construct the White House, the Capital building, and other structures. Nine presidents employed slave labor while living in the White House. Black people were not afforded the right to vote during those nine presidential tenures.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, more than four million slaves were granted their freedom from involuntary servitude. This action was codified into law with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, giving former black slaves agency over their own lives for the first time. However, Frederick Douglas, a former slave turned prominent abolitionist, insisted that emancipation without representation was not enough. “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot,” Frederick Douglass said.
After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Andrew Johnson, a staunch proponent of slave states retaining strict autonomy, was elected president, and he was expected to oversee the Reconstruction Period that followed the Civil War. The southern states took advantage of Andrew Johnson’s hands off approach to monitoring the reconciliation of United States, creating laws in southern states called The Black Codes. These laws infringed upon the civil rights of freed slaves, denying black Americans access to the vote.
Republicans in Congress — Republicans! — horrified by the actions of southern state legislatures, passed the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, overruling the veto that had been handed down by President Johnson. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, guaranteeing all Americans equal protection under the law and unencumbered voting rights, were passed in 1868 and 1870.
Black citizens lived under constant threat of violence despite the passage of these civil rights laws, as a significant amount of white citizens were convinced that black citizens should remain as second class, devoid of any right to advancement and representation.
States continued to disenfranchise black voters in the twentieth century. Legislatures in the south, composed mostly of white conservatives, reestablished new black codes. These Jim Crow laws circumvented the fifteenth amendment, allowing southern states to enact unjust requirements for voting. These Jim Crow laws kept black Americans in the south from exercising their constitutional rights as native born citizens, snatching the voices of millions of suffering peoples.
Voting rights was a pillar upon which civil rights proponents built their case for a more just American society. They utilized peaceful methods to amplify their message of equal rights under the law, ultimately convincing the most important American politician of the merit of their argument. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, ushering in a new era of suffrage rights for black people and other formerly underrepresented groups of Americans.
Black, Latinos, and other traditionally underrepresented groups were instrumental in picking the first black president in 2008 — Barack Obama garnered more than 95% of the black vote in 2008. Republicans led legislatures across the country responded to Obama’s ascension by creating impediments to voting. After the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, an opponent of expanded voting rights for decades, excised a key portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, voter suppression bills began flooding Republican state houses across the country.
Currently, there are more than four hundred voter suppression proposals circulating through state legislatures, most of them led by Republicans. Georgia and Arizona, states with an increasing number of traditionally underrepresented citizens, are each fielding twenty-two separate voter suppression proposals. Florida Republicans are taking their cues from Georgia, advancing a bill that would make it illegal to offer food and beverages to voters who are waiting in line. Republicans law makers, reveling in their toxic privilege and cruelty, are trying to turn the clock back to the early part of the twentieth century, the good old days when you could deny the right to vote to an “undesirable” individual based on skin color.
I believe that these efforts to suppress the vote will ultimately fail in the long run. The reasons are plenty.
The racial composition of the United States is morphing rapidly, reflecting the makeup of the larger world, with more immigrants and descendants of immigrants becoming naturalized and native born citizens every single year. Children of color out number native white children in school, and those children will turn eighteen at some point, their right to vote a cudgel that is used beat intransigent Republicans over the head.
Demographic changes extend to preferences of constituents. A significant number of Americans are more educated, rely less on the influence of the intolerant church pulpits — only forty-seven percent of Americans routinely attend church services — and are becoming more incisive in their questioning of conservativism as a philosophy. I mean, what is modern conservatism, apart from a movement that aims to exact suffering and extract dignity from people of color?
More Black Code like laws will be passed, and more cases will be filed by groups intent on beating back these regressive laws. We require a modern twenty-first century American society to employ judges who are able to interpret the constitution with every citizen in mind. President Joe Biden has already nominated eleven people for positions on federal courts, women, minorities, and other individuals with law backgrounds that are conducive to a more equitable application of the law. Hopefully, these eleven applicants will be confirmed very quickly, with more nominations and confirmations of judges to follow.
And we’ve come too far as a people to go back, this view being reflected in the initial reaction to the integration of SB-202. Corporations, not known for their fulsome support of social justice causes, have voiced their opposition to the new voter suppression law, three separate lawsuits have been filed in federal court by assorted civil rights organizations, and there are serious talks of an economic boycott against the state of Georgia. Major League Baseball has removed the All-Star Game, a warning for other states legislatures who are moving forward with their own version of Black Codes.
The majority of Americans want a more equitable society, responsive to the needs of all people.