The Importance – and Limits – of Black Voting
by Lukas Carbone
2020 marks 150 years since what should have been an end to racial disenfranchisement: the Fifteenth Amendment In recognition of these moments in black history and multiracial democracy, moments of great triumph and great failure, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History made this year’s Black History Month theme black voting, “the ongoing struggle on the part of both black men and black women for the right to vote.”
Contrasting with this narrative of continuous struggle is another: slavery ended in 1865; one century later, so did segregation, followed by an end to racial injustice as this progress concludes for many conservatives and continues for many liberals.
The reality, however, is that this inevitable, if slow, march of racial progress is not so. Nothing demonstrates this better than black suffrage, which began not in the 1960s, but with Reconstruction when biracial governments with an African-American base ruled many Southern states.
Americans are increasingly aware of the Reconstruction’s implications for achieving multiracial democracy: permanent democratization deserves active, fierce defense.
An end to multiracial democracy need not be immediate. In the 1880s, most African-American men could vote, and many African-Americans won political office, however, voter suppression ensured whites held virtually all political power above the municipal level. Similarly, modern voter suppression tactics prevent African-Americans from voting as much as whites. Mississippi, which has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state and most African-Americns can vote, yet has an all-white statewide government.
Voting alone cannot ensure racial equality. The Reconstruction demonstrated this; blacks and sympathetic whites secured political power while white supremacists maintained near-complete economic dominance, using this power to crush an electoral-based biracial coalition.
Deep racial inequality can persist even when African Americans achieve political power. In the 1970s, black Californians organized and won great political power, electing black mayors in Oakland and Los Angeles, black Congresspeople, and a black State Assembly Speaker, furthering black interests. Nevertheless, extreme housing costs and a racial wealth gap drove thousands of African-Americans either out of the state or onto the streets.
Oakland especially is a drastic example of this: even though the city has had a black congressperson since the 1970s and elected multiple black Mayors, the city’s black population is now half of what it was in the 1980s. Regardless of black political power, whites dominate the city. Voting, alone, cannot bring about racial equality. But this does not diminish African-Americans’ success in “[making their voices heard]… through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1960s.”
Modern Era Suppression
by Jake Schoenholz
In Georgia, during the 2018 midterm election, 40 black men and women boarded a bus at their county senior living center to take them to vote but were told by resident officials they could not travel to to the polling place. This incident demonstrates that suppression of the African American vote continues in the twenty- first century.
The Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 in Shelby v. Holder nullified parts of the Voting Rights Act, now allowing states to once again impose requirements that serve to prevent African Americans from voting. This decision breaks some of the protections afforded by the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, originally put in place to outlaw poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, all previously seen as Jim Crow efforts in southern states that began after the Civil War to disenfranchise black voters. Overall, the fifteenth amendment and Voting Rights Act have not been successful in eliminating black voter suppression. As a result, these individuals are denied this basic constitutional right.
Typically, the jurisdictions that engage in these suppression tactics are under the control of republican leaders who aim to retain their power as they recognize that black voters tend to overwhelmingly vote for democratic candidates. As the above example demonstrates there were many efforts to prevent African Americans from voting. These actions were aimed at suppressing the vote in the 2018 gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp won this close race by only 50,000 votes with 3.9 million votes cast during this election. During the campaign, Kemp as Secretary of State used his authority to put in place suppression practices to advantage himself. These efforts included purging thousands of registered voters, mostly African American residents, closing over 200 polling places in mostly minority communities, making it more difficult for those individuals to vote.
In addition to the efforts in Georgia to prevent African Americans from voting, there are other states across the country that are engaging in similar actions. Specifically, a ballot provision approved by voters in 2018 that restored voting rights to felons who have been released from jail has come under attack by republican state leadership. In response to this new law, these leaders passed restrictions to prevent these individuals from exercising their right to vote. These new conditions require released felons to pay fines or fees before being permitted to vote. According to Pew Research, blacks constitute the highest percentage of the prison population at 33% as compared to whites and hispanics. Many view these restrictions by republican state leadership as a present-day Jim Crow poll tax since recently released felons do not have the financial means to pay these fees. Another example of voter suppression is the requirement of voter identification. Many republican-controlled states have adopted this law to purportedly prevent voter fraud, but its effect has been to disenfranchise many African Americans. In some states, these laws have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, but, in response, these same jurisdiction will then enact other similar burdensome requirements.