Mourning the Loss of a Democracy That Never Was

If there was one thing I took away from my high school civics class was that America was a democracy, brilliantly constructed by men who were determined that under no circumstances could this country become an autocracy or a monarchy.

The system of checks and balances was perfect in my mind. The three branches of government would check each other to keep the power on the highest level evenly distributed and applied. Given what I had read about monarchies and Nazism and Fascism and about tyrannical rulers, I was comforted. Even though I as an African American had real and specific concerns and complaints about this government, at least it had the blueprint to be fair to all of its people.

But if we define a democracy as a government which is ruled by the people, something has been wrong from the beginning. A formal definition of democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A democracy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “government by the people, especially the rule of the majority.” That’s what I learned in high school; that’s what I thought I was being taught.

And I was …except that it was an erroneous lesson from the beginning. The Founding Fathers didn’t intend for this government to really  be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They wanted this to be a government where a few people – notably, white, wealthy, male, Protestant landowners, to rule the many. They didn’t include in their formation of this government any intention of ever including everyone. Some people were more worthy of governing and some’s place was to “be governed.”

The right to vote – I thought the right of all Americans to vote – was at the heart of what made this government different. One person, one vote became the ideal for fledgling democracies all over the world. But from the beginning of our existence as a nation, the right to vote has been compromised, messed with and messed over. The recent mid-term elections, with wide-spread voter suppression, is not a new thing – which says to me that while some of us are alarmed at what is going on in our federal government, the cry (my cry, specifically) that our democracy is in danger of failing, is not true.

We have celebrated a “democracy” that never was.

From our beginning, people in power – most specifically white men – have done all they could to keep the masses from voting. Ari Berman, in his excellent book, Give Us the Ballot, describes the brouhaha that developed after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems that many white folks were appalled at the notion that black people should have the same right to vote as did white people and they did all they could to keep that from happening – in spite of the VRA. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed for the passage of the VRA in spite of the huge price he paid politically, said that “the vote is the most powerful instrument devised for breaking down injustice.” But if my reading of history is correct, a large contingency of white people in general, and white politicians in particular, had little to no interest in breaking down injustice, and in spite of claiming that they lived in a democracy, and in spite of taking oaths to defend, preserve and protect the United States Constitution, they had no intention of doing so.

I was always appalled at the tricks devised and carried out to keep black people from voting, but as I have learned more about the efforts to keep America’s power in the hands of white people, my anger has only increased. In Berman’s book, he describes black people going to the polls to vote – people who had previously voted – only to be told that they were no longer eligible. There were no more jars with jelly beans to count, and no more literacy tests, but the schemes to keep black people out of the “I am an American and I vote” club were there. In his chapter entitled “The Counterrevolution (II),” Berman recounts several of these instances, including that of one Willie Steen, an African American who was a Navy vet who served in Operation Desert Storm. He took his 10-year-old son with him, but when he got to his polling place to vote, he was told he could not vote because he was a convicted felon.

He was no such thing.

He tried to clear up the confusion to no avail. He left the polling place that day angry and embarrassed, concerned about how he would explain all of this to his son. It turns out that somehow, he had been confused with a convict named “Willie Osteen,” who committed a felony at the same time Willie Steen was serving in the Persian Gulf. Berman says that same type of thing was happening to African American voters throughout the state of Florida.

We all saw what happened in the midterms; we have all heard the charges of voter fraud levied against Democrats by some members of the GOP, in spite of there being no evidence of the same, while at the same time there is massive evidence of voter fraud in several locations, including North Carolina. (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/07/north-carolina-early-voting-midterms-a-diabolical-new-republican-ploy-to-suppress-black-turnout.html)  Those who believe that African Americans and other members of other ethnic groups are not worthy of voting have continued to do all they can to make sure they keep things like they want them – which does not include people of color.

That being said, in a country where all its citizens are not encouraged or even permitted to vote, democracy has to be called a sham.

We have all been duped.

Some kind of way, however, we have to right the wrongs and try to make this country live into the words penned by the Founding Fathers – words which, ironically, not even they intended to apply to everyone.

We are in mourning some of us, for a democracy that never was.

A candid observation …

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

I am trying not to be angry, but I am.

The Republicans have made a point of saying they want to appeal to all Americans, that they want to enlarge their base and show people that they “care” about those who are not Conservatives.

But today, as people gather in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate that awful Sunday in 1965 when black people were beaten as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they had to in order to reach Montgomery from Selma to demand the right to vote, Republican leadership is not there. Save one, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, there will be no Republicans in leadership there to commemorate, really, the working of democracy.

It is clear that there is not a lot of support for upholding the Voting Rights Act amongst Conservatives. The United States Supreme Court has done much to dismantle much of what the more than 25,000 people marched for on that day in 1965. It seems that Conservatives give much lip service to the concept of democracy, but in practice, they seem not to believe in it at all.

Their absence in Selma today says that they do not care …about a large number of American citizens …who happen to be people of color. It seems that they do not care that, as Americans fought the British for independence – and won  – that they do not care that people of color had to fight the white power structure for dignity and a basic American right …and won …in spite of being brutally beaten.

It was the goal of Alabama state law enforcement to impede black people from crossing that bridge and from demanding their right to vote. It was only after President Lyndon Johnson, at the behest of Civil Rights leaders, ordered protection for the marchers from the federal government …that the people had enough protection to …be Americans and to demand an American right.

The interference of the federal government in cases of racial inequality and injustice was the basis for the battle cry of “states’ rights” back then, a cry which is resurrecting today. Folks resented the federal government “telling them what to do.” It was the right of states, they believed, to treat their “nigras” like they wanted to. When the federal government intervened, they fumed …and are still fuming.

That’s why we are seeing such an erosion of the Voting Rights Act today.

I think of all those people who were beaten that day as they marched peacefully to claim their right to vote …and I weep inside, because it seems like, feels like, much of what they suffered for has been forgotten.

I remember when President George Bush, in his inauguration address, called for “1000 points of light” to help address and fix some of this nation’s problems.

Those lights either do not exist or have been blown out by the winds of racial injustice which have continued to blow in this great land of ours.

It would be great to look up and see that some of our Republican leaders swallowed their emotions and showed up today in Selma. It would be good to see Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell and John Boehner …and others …but they will not show up. House Republicans showed up to support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but have so little respect for African-Americans and people of color that they will not show up today.

I am angry about it; well, maybe “saddened” is the more apt adjective to use. It says volumes about this “land of the free and home of the brave.” It is not yet, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Not yet.

A candid observation ….

One Group Forward, Another Group Back

The United States Supreme Court did the right thing, I believe, in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), clearing the way for members of the LGBT community to get the rights they deserve as American citizens. As more and more states lose their resistance to allowing same-sex marriage, the rights of these couples will finally be treated with dignity and will be entitled to federal benefits  that heterosexual married couples now enjoy. Some religious folks are decrying the decision, insisting that the Bible says marriage is supposed to be between one man and one woman but the decision of the Supreme Court really did make justice possible for one group of people who have been too long discriminated against.

But while the LGBT community enjoyed a victory, African-Americans suffered a serious setback. In effectively striking down the guts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court invalidated the work over the years by activists to make sure the right of African-Americans to vote was protected. The high court left the door and the way open for dishonesty and hate-based-on-race to have its way …again. The blood, sweat and tears – literally – of activists, black, white, Christian, Jewish – was dishonored by a court whose chief justice, John Roberts, said, “our country has changed.”

It brought me to tears.

Voting is about power, and from the outset, some people in some states, historically, knew that all too well. To allow the growing population of African-Americans in the South to vote would upset and challenge the balance of the white power structure. To guard against that,  ridiculous, immoral, unethical and disingenuous “tests” were set up to weed African-Americans out. People were asked to tell how many jelly beans were in a jar; they were given literacy tests by many who were themselves illiterate. They were given tests on the United States Constitution. Some blacks would stand in line to register to vote for hours only to get to the registration point and either be turned away because they “failed” one of these tests or to find that voting registration was closed for the day.

The court specifically struck down Section 4 of the Act, which required specifically named states to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before they made changes to requirements and procedures for voting, to change polling places, or redrawing electoral districts. Congress in 2006 renewed the act, extending the preclearance requirement for 25 years. Now, however, the states that were named have been released from the requirement that they be monitored and get preclearance (Section 5). Federal attorneys can go to individual states and see what they are doing, but clearly, states will have more freedom to do as they wish, hoping that they are not “caught.”

Politics is about power, not about people. In spite of our founding documents saying that government is “by the people, of the people and for the people,” the reality is that those words, that stated belief, is not really true. Far too many American people suffer from a democracy and democratic principles that do not extend to them. While the Congress gets up in arms about democracy needing to work and/or be established in foreign countries, democracy in America is in intensive care.

The Supreme Court this week pushed one group, the LGBT community, move forward while simultaneously pushing another group, African-Americans, back. The court showed notable sensitivity to the group, and familiar and painful insensitivity to another.

The struggle continues. It just never ends. Racism, and the inequality it metes out, is America’s cancer. It resists all efforts to get it out of the life-blood of American society.

A candid observation…