When Black People Don’t Vote

The other day, I was going into a library and as I approached the door, a young man with a clipboard approached me, asking if my voter registration was up to date. As I assured him it was, my ears perked up when the other gentleman with a clipboard asked an African-American woman the same question I had been asked, and she snapped, “Yeah. Naw. I don’t vote!” And at that, she stormed into the library. I followed her and she grumbled to a child who was with her, who may have been her grandchild, “how dare them ask me if my registration is up to date! They don’t question me! If I want to vote, I’ll vote.”

I didn’t know if that meant she had a voter registration card and was just miffed that someone asked her if her information was up to date, or if she really planned not to vote. I don’t have the answer to my own question, but this I do know: it does something to me when I hear black people say they are going to vote.

Last year, I visited Selma. I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As I walked, I remembered reading what happened on that bridge, how black and white people were beaten back by white police officers who beat them, injuring many, including Congressman John Lewis, who was a young man at the time.

As we walked across that bridge, I remembered thinking how chaotic and scary that day or that project had to have been. The bridge is not large; it is not long and it is not wide, and yet, thousands of people, tired of having to take literacy tests given, many times, by people who could not read themselves. I thought about how those people kept hitting against the Evil called white supremacy, being beaten, imprisoned, having their houses burned down by white people, many of who were law enforcement officers…I thought about how people stayed the course and risked their lives and much more, just to get black people the right to vote.

And yet, some people say they will not vote.

I have heard young people say voting doesn’t matter, or, more specifically, that their vote does not matter. I have heard other people blame God, or give God credit, for their not voting. One woman, when I was registering people before the 2008 election, said God told her not to vote, that the only One she had to answer to, was God. No, she said, she would not be voting.

Her statement confused me and bothered me, just as this woman the other day at the library confused and bothered me, and, frankly, made me angry.

I remember growing up, when we kids would do something wrong that made us look like the selfish kids we were, my mother saying, “I’ve done (and she could list the things she had worked and sacrificed for) for you …and this is the thanks I get?

Those words gripped me as I grappled with this woman’s reaction to the question about being up to date with her voter registration information, and her declaration that, “no,” she would not be voting.

How can anyone of African American descent say that?

For many, there is disappointment that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee. They are disappointed because they feel her message was supported by the media, though they feel that her message and candidacy was supported at the expense of Bernie Sanders. Others are angry at her because she supported policies of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that were responsible for many black people being in prison today for either petty crimes, or crimes they did not commit.

To be honest, I am not wild about Hillary being in the White House, either. I don’t think she is any worse than any other candidate, but I am just not inspired by her campaign promises and rhetoric.

But though I am unimpressed by what she is saying, I cannot choose to skip this election and my by absence, give more votes to Donald Trump. Trump and the Republicans represent the racism, overt racism, that our ancestors fought to be rid of. Trump is a bully,and a narcissistic racist who is appealing to the guy wrenching fear and anger of a group of people who want him to “make America great again.”  I don’t think we as black people understand fully about how being present in the political arena and exercising our right to vote is about the best way to make sure white supremacy is held at bay.

I am hoping black people who are planning not to vote will rethink their plans. Black people don’t win by withholding, or rejecting  their privilege to vote. We have got to be present, in the middle of the cocktail party, so to speak, to make our voices heard and to not let the poison of white supremacy spread across these United States like a toppled jar of non-washable ink. Our ancestors, I keep thinking, must be weeping in their divine sleep, screaming screams that cannot be heard, saying, “No!”

We have come too far, but the powers that be are working to undo those changes, slowly, persistently, and financially. If we don’t vote, we contribute to Trump’s victory. But listen up: We needed the right to vote.  Even if you hate Hillary Clinton, there is or will be more chances to perhaps get people in high places so that the gains we’ve made will not be completely eroded by a group of people who “want their country back.” I don’t know what all that means, but it feels like something that will be designed to break our backs. They are gearing up for the victory of a man who thinks of no one but himself; if we let him in, we suffer; the gains we’ve made will be done away with.

And our ancestors will weep again.

A candid observation..

 

Blacks Aren’t the Only Ones Who Live in Drug-infested Neighborhoods

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” saying that drug addiction was “public enemy number one.” The use of heroin was apparently on the rise; soldiers serving in Viet-Nam were disproportionately addicted to that drug.

By the mid-60s, there was significant backlash to the intervention of the federal government as it passed legislation to protect the right of black people to vote. More black people voting threatened to weaken the capacity of state governments to pass and uphold white racist legislation. There had to be a way to neutralize the black vote; Nixon actually said that the “problem” was the blacks and there had to be developed a system to control them while not appearing to. Politicians had to feed into the fear of whites that blacks, allowed to vote, would have too much power. And so, code language was developed and used; “states rights” was one of the code phrases used; whites understood that phrase to mean that the federal government had overstepped its bounds by passing legislation which protected the rights of blacks, and the “war on drugs” was yet another phrase used to support the belief that black people were in effect the bane of American society. Conducting a “war on drugs” was effectively conducting a campaign against black people, making sure there was a reason to arrest and imprison them, moving them out of the way.

So, this war on drugs has proliferated; literally hundreds of thousands of black people are in prison for minor, non-violent drug charges. When or as the rhetoric about Freddie Gray has increased, news reports are careful to say that he has a “slew” of minor drug offenses and that his arrest took place in a “drug infested neighborhood.” Such language validates the feeling that he was a criminal, worthy, perhaps, of whatever police decided to do to him.

It hit me, though, that the “war on drugs” is severely deficient. If we take the term at face value, and eliminate the racial undertones, it is clear that many of America’s neighborhoods are “drug infested.” Street drugs may be the norm in poor neighborhoods, but in affluent neighborhoods, drug use is rampant as well. People who can afford it are addicted to prescription drugs, including Oxycontin and Valium and Xanax, to name a few. Powder cocaine use is notoriously rampant amongst the wealthy. And kids in affluent high schools, as well as in colleges, are known to use any drug they can get their hands on.

It hit me: If we’re going to conduct a war on drugs …then let’s conduct a war.

Instead of singling out the poor, who use street drugs, let’s go after the wealthy, who use and sell drugs just as much as do poor people. Since we have a penchant for locking up those who use and sell drugs, let’s lock up those affluent people who are smack dab in the middle of the drug culture.

Let’s do a war on drugs, for real.

It would be refreshing if the media would not keep lifting up that Gray lived in, or was stopped in, a drug-infested neighborhood. The media helps sustain the perception of black people as the primary problem drug users and sellers in this nation. That simply is not true, and it is disingenuous for the media to keep up its biased reporting, helping to support the myths that make way too many people feel smug about police arresting individuals and locking them up for years. The media have helped, and is helping, the process of dehumanizing and criminalizing black, brown, and poor people.

If it is a war on drugs that America wants, I repeat, let’s do a war …and go after ALL people who are engaged in using and selling drugs. There should not be such a blatant practice of racial and class discrimination based on a culture which is drug-infested in and of itself.

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…

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 …