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Voting Rights For Black People

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Last week Black Americans received another of those undeserved slaps in the face by the political party we continue to show up for at the polls – a loyalty built over time beginning with the promises of the celebrated President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. Roosevelt was a Democrat.

Then, like now, it did not take long to figure out that when it came to dealing equitably with the needs of Black people, the New Deal was not a Bad Deal for Black people, but in truth, it was No Deal at all when it came to equal access to the benefits offered through its programs.

Almost forty years in its wake (there is something about the number 40, in relation to America and Black people that is strangely eerie), there was the welcomed passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) – thank you Democrats — that created an opening for Black progress.

But, just like the 40 acres and a mule promise to newly freed slaves was reneged on by the federal government, the same thing happened with voting rights when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core provision of the Voting Rights Act (Section 5) in 2013, and put the onus on Congress to make it right.

Given the predictable harms resulting from this decision, one is left wondering if suppressing the vote wasn't the court's intent all along.

Had it not been so impactful on the lives and future of Black people, the idea of handing this responsibility over to a Republican led Congress in 2013—when members of the party remained infuriated and vindictive over the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama - would have seemed laughable. But given the predictable harms resulting from this decision, one is left wondering if suppressing the vote wasn't the court's intent all along.

From the outset, Republican congressional leaders boldly announced their intent to make Obama a one term president and to block every piece of legislation he proposed. After having failed in that mission (Obama was re-elected and he passed the historic Affordable Care Act), for the Supreme Court to then expect these same Republican party leaders (who at that point had gained control over both houses of congress) to work toward reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act, was preposterous.

For this and other reasons, whether disappointed, dissatisfied, disillusioned, disheartened, or more, Black voter turnout pulled back in 2016. Debate continues over what part this played in the ultimate election of Donald Trump. It is unclear. What is clear, however, is when Black people don’t vote—it matters.

Beginning in 2017, the nation witnessed the rise, fall and ongoing threat of a racist leader striving to build an Aryan Nation.

This looming threat coupled with an out of control pandemic killing people of color in unprecedented numbers, and the continued indiscriminate murder of Blacks by rogue cops and vigilantes led Black voters back to the polls in 2020 where they were forced between a rock (Donald Trump) and a hard place (Joe Biden) who by comparison was served up as the great white hope despite his buddy relationships with segregationist or the lack of protection and respect he showed our Black sister Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings or his avid support (along with many Congressional Blacks) for passage of the 1984 Crime Bill.

For Black people it was another of those election cycles where we knew we were voting for our children’s future and as flawed as Biden is—we had no other choice because another four years of Trump would most assuredly have proved disastrous for Blacks and other under-served communities.

Following Trump’s actions since his 2020 defeat it is obvious that electing Biden, though not the ideal choice, was the right choice between the two candidates.

I know it’s only been a year and I would never disregard Biden’s accomplishments to date, yet in my estimation for the president to pretend he can sway Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats when he failed so miserably at this when he was Obama’s wing man, appeared to me as a hyped-up overpromise.

He did not deliver in this regard for Obama and there was no reason to believe he would do any better when he became president despite his many promises.

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What American Democracy Allows

To date, Biden’s agenda has not unfolded as planned—no criminal justice reform—no immigration reform—and importantly, no voting rights legislation, the foundation on which democracy rests. But he did strike a deal for infrastructure—certainly something warranted, necessary and of course a priority for Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats but not at the top of the list for Black and Brown voters. Biden even broke a promise to the progressive caucus related to the passage of Build Back Better filled with relief for issues of importance for these constituencies to get them to move on infrastructure.

Biden spent countless hours meeting with moderate democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. How many hours did he spend with progressive legislators? How many hours did he meet with members of the Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus?

What is so utterly gross and disturbing about Biden’s pandering to Manchin specifically (Sinema has her own issues) is that Manchin is a multi-millionaire from a state where the total population is 1.79 million compared to 39.5 million in CA for example.

California’s population is equivalent to more than 23 West Virginia’s. There is something wrong with a democratic system where one man elected by .5% of the nation’s population can wield such power. Actually, Manchin was elected in 2018 with a fraction of that .5%. That year in a three person race Manchin was reelected by less than 50% of the state’s voters. His state has a poverty rate hovering around 16% - a median income of $26,354 and only about five percent of West Virginia’s population are people of color.

So, American democracy allows for one, marginally elected Senator to strut around like he’s “King of the Stardust Ballroom” putting the future of our kids at risk in the process. The truth of it all is appalling—but then again, this is the nature of American democracy.

When tracing my family roots, I met a woman named Cora. I don’t know much about her or where she was from other than in the 1790s, she was gifted by her owner to his son who moved her from North Carolina to settle in Tennessee. She, her children, and her children’s children labored on that plantation until freedom came. Sometimes it is humbling for me to realize I am only the third generation on this branch of my family tree to be born free.

Staying Committed to the Struggle

At times like this when Blacks are once again at risk of losing the one tool that gives us an opportunity to build a better life for ourselves and our progeny, I sometimes feel weary in the continuing quest for full citizenship. For Black people this fight seems unending – after all, last week Republican leader Mitch McConnell reminded us again that he does not see Black people as Americans. He called his statement an unintentional error - I call it a Freudian slip.

But although we may be discouraged, we must remain committed to this struggle in whatever way we can. I imagine what my great-great-great grandmother Cora might advise me and others about this dilemma. I imagine she would say something like… ‘Don’t ever give up…If you have to stand in line for hours to vote—then stand. If you must show identification to vote—then find a way to get identification, show it, and vote. If you get purged from the voting rolls—Re-register and then vote. If they refuse to pass Voting Rights legislation, then vote them out of office or vote and elect more representatives to make their resistance moot. No matter what obstacles they put in your way—make a way and overcome it.’

In the final analysis, voting is the only way forward. It is the only way to put people in place to establish the laws to protect our access to the ballot.

Stephanie Williams Promo Image

Cora would probably remind me that my today is far better than her yesterday and through perseverance and determination to secure and maintain the franchise, tomorrow will be better still for our great-great-great grandchildren.

We owe a debt to past generations to persevere in this struggle. We have an obligation to pay it forward.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

Stephanie Williams

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