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 …

What America Values

At first, it didn’t hit me.

It was the holiday season; Christmas was fast approaching, and retailers wanted profits.

So, three or four days before Christmas, some of them announced that they would keep their doors open, extend their hours, to accommodate shoppers. Kohl’s would be open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Macy’s would be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Stores opened on Thanksgiving to give shoppers a head start.

They wanted to be sure to please their patrons. On the surface, if one was a shopper, that seemed like a nice gesture.

But then it hit me. States all over this nation sought to restrict the days and hours during the day that people could vote in the mid-term elections in 2014.

We are important enough, in other words, to accommodate when business wants our money, but we are not important enough to accommodate when we try to exercise the right we have as Americas to vote.

For shopping, there is some understanding that people might find it hard to get to the stores because of their busy schedules.

For voting, no such understanding is given. The sentiment is, or seems to be, “if you want to vote, you will find a way to get there in these proscribed hours and on these proscribed days.”

The movie Selma is released tomorrow. The fight in Selma was about the fight to get the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed …but since then, there has been serious, organized opposition to that law, which has resulted in the slow dismantling of all that that law made possible.

Americans are free to spend their money; this nation will help Americans spend their money, but this nation will NOT help people exercise their right to vote.

Shop until you drop …but go sit down somewhere and don’t complain if you can’t get to the polls on the limited days and times which the government has made possible.

How come some Americans don’t see anything wrong with this picture? How come some …or, I might say, many …Americans scoff at the notion that some people really do need more days and times to vote than others? How come it’s OK to go overboard to get people to spend their money, but not OK to provide more days and times to vote?

All of the voter suppression we have seen is the result of the vast numbers of African-Americans and other marginalized groups having been able to vote in 2008 and 2012. The lives of the marginalized were considered and honored; people who had never voted before finally got the opportunity.

It was glorious. It was democracy, right? It was evidence that “all men are created equal.”  It was about a level playing field. Parity. Equity. Democracy exercised generations after Jefferson et al drew up our Constitution.

But the glory has faded and continues to do so. The powers that be didn’t like marginalized people showing up en masse, causing this country to lean toward true democracy. So, they have worked to dismantle nearly all of the gains made in the Civil Rights movement …while simultaneously making it easier for people to shop using money they do not have so that the rich can get richer and the marginalized can remain marginalized.

At first, it went past me. I missed it. It didn’t hit me.

But I get it now, and it makes me sigh.

Democracy is an ideal and an idea that looks good on paper.

But when the task of making and maintaining democracy is thrown to the people, it might as well be thrown to the wolves.

People don’t want democracy. They want power and money and will do anything they must to obtain it.

I get it now …and I am not impressed. My concept of democracy, where “the least of these” are considered as human and are treated as such, is not real. It never has been.

A candid observation …

 

 

 

 

Insensitivity or Ignorance?

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...
photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

People sometimes ask, irritably, why black people can’t stop being mad. They point to the progress that has been made in this country, where black people have been “granted” the civil rights they were due by virtue of being American citizens…and only slowly. When someone expresses anger, there is a definite sigh of exacerbation from those who think black people ought to just “get over themselves” and move on.

 

That is, actually, what black people have been doing since having been brought to America – gotten over themselves and this nation which actually passed laws to keep them in their place. They “got over themselves” even as they fought for dignity and a real chance to partake in the American Dream. There was no time to navel gaze.

 

But the reason the anger still sits within the souls and spirits of many African-Americans is because every now and then, someone from the “majority” population will say something that shows either insensitivity or ignorance, or both, letting those who have been held back and held up by this government cringe with a familiar pain.

 

Such was the cringe many felt when Justice Antonin Scalia said this week, in deliberations about whether or not to overturn Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, that the Court had to “rescue Congress from the trap of being afraid to vote against a “racial entitlement.”

 

Cringe. Sigh. This, from the highest court in the land.

 

Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, for those who do not know, requires preclearance from the Justice Department in certain states and jurisdictions make changes in voting procedures, things like changing the hours people can vote, or redrawing district lines, or changing the requirements for registering to vote. It happens that these preclearances have been required in Southern states because of their long history of denying the vote to African-Americans, by any means necessary. Some politicians are now complaining  the preclearances are not fair, that there is no racism like there used to be in the South, and that states ought to be free to make their own rules vis-a-vis voting with no federal interference. States rights is what they seem to be calling upon.

 

The Court’s Conservative judges have been particularly hard on those wanting to keep Section Five. They have said that politicians are afraid to change this portion of the law because they don’t want to be seen as racists; therefore, it is the Court’s responsibility to “rescue” Congress from the task.

 

It’s about racism in this country, this tiff going on in the United States Supreme Court, that subject about which nobody wants to talk, and everybody wants to believe is long gone. It is far from gone; black and brown people can tell anyone who asks that it is not gone. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court justices, at least the Conservative ones, are being coy as they ask questions like Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” No, replied U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, but Roberts undoubtedly knew that when he asked the question. We by now know that the racism in the North was and is as virulent as it was and is in the South. The issue, however, is that states in the South practiced blatant racism , actively working to prevent African-Americans from voting, and had done it virtually without comment since the end of Reconstruction. It was only the intervention of the federal government, under the leadership of President Johnson, combined with persistent protests by Civil Rights workers, that forced a change in Southern states.

 

R0berts and Scalia and no doubt, all of the Conservative justices know that, and they also know the shenanigans that go on even now when it comes to voting. With the demography of this nation changing, Republicans are worried about the white vote being diluted and some have charged that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is reverse discrimination!

 

The passing of this act did not give African-Americans an “entitlement,” a word loaded with innuendo and suggestion of something someone does not earn. No, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave African-Americans the RIGHT to vote, as described in the United States Constitution.

 

For Scalia to say that the issue before the Court is “…attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement…Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes,” smacks of insensitivity at best, and ignorance at worst. Statements like that are a slap in the face of African-Americans and indeed all Americans who have had to fight for their basic rights.  How is it possible that in the 21st century, so-called intelligent barristers are making such ignorant and insensitive statements? This society should be way past even discussing how to best give all of its citizens the rights they are entitled to as citizens, and yet, we have Scalia’s statement staring us all in the face.

 

Racial discrimination is embedded in the fabric of American society. Remove certain protections and it is highly likely that, under the authority granted, “states’ rights” advocates will do what they want to wrangle and manipulate elections to go the way they want. That the justices cannot see that, or will not acknowledge that, is disingenuous and dishonest. We can all see how hot the embers of racial hatred are; we have seen it during the presidency of Barack Obama. There are plenty of people, white people, who still want to “take their country back,” and one of the best ways to do it is to control the vote.

 

The ignorance and insensitivity shown by the justices thus far has been disheartening. Some political activists have spoken out, but it seems that in this year that we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that more than the activists would register a complaint about what the justices, the Conservative justices, are saying vis-a-vis this important protection for minority voters. We cannot go backwards. Change is hard, and our country is changing by leaps and bounds, but that is no excuse to allow protections for minorities as they seek to exercise their rights as Americans to be overturned or ignored.

 

There are a lot of people cringing after hearing Justice Scalia’s remarks. Those remarks showed just how deep are feelings of resentment toward groups of people who are still fighting for the RIGHTS of being American citizens.

 

A candid observation …