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The Right’s Dreams of American Apartheid

It’s tragic but not surprising that the election of the nation’s first black president would accelerate a racist, nationwide movement to disenfranchise people of color, the poor and the elderly. A new map of states with restrictive voting laws indicates the scope of the problem: racism is not restricted to the former Confederacy.

Many conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, argue that 1965’s historic Voting Rights Act is obsolete and in need of repeal. The opposite is the case. The VRA, which currently applies to a limited number of states, counties and townships, should be expanded to include all 50 states.

Conservative arguments for repeal are based in part on the election of Barack Obama. The New York Times 2008 election-night headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls,” says it all. Charles P. Pierce chides Americans about their “post-racial” wishful hallucinations with his repeated sarcasm, “It’s Not About Race because It’s Never About Race.” By 2011, though, even the NYT’s was forced back up a bit on the wish, running a piece by Toure? pleading for an end to claims of a “post-racial America.”

We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America.

Todd Donovan’s intriguing 2010 study, “Obama and the White Vote,” shows that racial context influences voting behavior. Obama did less well in states with large African American populations, confirming the “racial threat” theory that says racist attitudes among whites grow as the population of people of color increases. Donovan concluded:

Race was clearly a factor in the 2008 presidential election. Independent of innuendo about Obama that was associated with his race, there are reasons to expect that some white voters might still find it difficult to support an African American candidate for president.

The right-wing voter suppression movement is not new, but it has picked up steam. Every honest, thinking person knows that so-called “voter ID” laws are intended to suppress the votes of blacks, Latinos, the elderly, the infirm, and young college students – all constituencies that historically favor Democratic candidates.

The Right hides behind dubious claims of widespread voter impersonation fraud. Smiling innocently, voter ID advocates say they only want to guard the integrity of the voting system. Give me a break. These are the same people who in the past have, among other anti-democratic practices: 1) hired police impersonators to stand around polling places intimidating voters; organized phone banks giving incorrect voting dates, times and places; 3) purged voter rolls with fraudulent felon lists.

As arguments in the Texas case concluded Friday before a federal appeals court panel in Washington, D.C., voter ID proponents had still failed to present evidence of voter impersonation fraud. While the federal government showed that about 1.4 million Texans lacked the necessary ID (and many lived 200 miles from a place where they could get one), Texas’ lawyers could dig up out of history only five instances of voter impersonation.

Because many would-be voters have to spend money on travel or fees for birth certificates etc. to secure the required documentation, voter ID represents a return to Jim Crow poll taxes and other barriers to the polls. Revealingly, John Hughes, an attorney for Texas, said in his closing arguments that even literacy tests would be okay under the VRA!

Just as revealingly, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai bragged to a private audience of Republicans following passage of the new restrictive law: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win Pennsylvania, done.”

Texas’ voter ID law will likely be overturned as violating Section 5 of the VRA. That’s the part of the law that requires Justice Department clearance of changes in voting laws and procedures. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott will appeal to the Supreme Court in hopes of getting the court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional. That would gut the VRA.

American apartheid is the goal of the Right. That’s a fact hiding in plain sight. As the nation’s demographics shift, the Republican Party, which by its own admission is too white, is trying to protect its power by taking voting rights away from blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others.

Here is a chapter on voter suppression from my book, “The Threatened Habitats of Democracy” in The Politics of Deceit.

The Threatened Habitats of Democracy

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith