The Photo ID Movement as White Privilege

Austin, Texas

“This is her first time to vote!” exclaimed her grandmother as the young woman stepped toward me to sign the poll list, voter card in hand. Grandmother and granddaughter were beaming. They were both so proud. Right then and there all my training fell to the floor.

As a substitute poll worker last Spring I had been carefully instructed how to handle first time voters. According to new federal rules handed down in 2002 by the so-called Help America Vote Act (HAVA), I was supposed to ask for photo ID and get them to sign a special roster for first-timers.

“Congratulations,” I said to the young woman, and smiled back with affirmation. “Please sign here.” I pointed to her signature line in the poll book. That’s all.

It would have turned my stomach inside out to demand a photo ID from that woman in that moment. It would have transformed the experience entirely in ways that felt profane. In a moment of pride and participation, I would have injected suspicion: Prove who you are! I don’t believe this setup. You can’t fool me pretending to be this woman’s granddaughter, etc.

The young woman and her grandmother were African American. But other young voters who came with their families that day were not. As I recall, when I turned in my election materials at the end of the day, the roster for new voters was a complete blank. Time after time, either the new voter or a family member standing nearby would want me to know, “this is a first!” And all I could think was, “SSHHH! Don’t let the other poll workers hear you.”

With two wire service reports this week on Republican-led efforts to intensify voter identification in Indiana, Georgia, and Wisconsin, that image of first-time voter pride boils up inside me. Voting is a civil sacrament and I don’t like the way Republicans are transforming it into a credit app.

Plus, with new HAVA-mandated databases coming online, the time is rapidly approaching when machines will be able to spit out lists of first-time voters who did not sign the separate roster confirming that they showed photo ID. And like 150 voters recently subpoenaed in a Houston election contest, they could be subject to follow-up harassment.

And finally, what Republicans signify in this debate is the latest arrogant display of their skin-color privilege. The Republican party USA is the party of white privilege, and their entire demeanor in the voter ID initiative is a smirking exhibition of white power’s backlash prerogatives.

The emotion displayed by African-American legislators during these debates has been criticized as impolite and uncivil, but what are the words that editorial writers use to describe the creepy callousness of Republican floor leaders who carry themselves as if no history every made it impossible for African American populations to vote, as if centuries of official mistreatment leave no impression on a people, or as if fellow citizens have no experiences that they are bound to respect.

Just because you’re acting slick, doesn’t make you civil. And it is one more mark of white skin color privilege in the USA that you get to act like business is usual when the business at hand is beating back the civil rights revolution.

Democratic solidarity on the issue has been gratifying to see. Votes have been straight-party contests. In the Democratic alliance on this issue, I try to see hope that a progressive coalition is possible in which a substantial minority of white folks are able to listen, learn, and respond to civil rights experience. As I witnessed at the polls, the family pride in first-time voters is an experience to be shared across race, class, and ethnicity.

It sounds like such an innocent thing. Just show your photo ID. But in the context of the lived experience of voting in the USA, the demand articulates a separate and unequal perspective developed among operatives who have systematic histories of suppressing African American participation at polling places, where slick guys in ties hang out all day, loudly challenging every old lady who shuffles in. Of course, many of these same old ladies have seen worse, and some have even changed the diapers on these same white brats when they were stinking babies. So it is a kind of pleasure to watch the village elders simply stroll onward, as if completely deaf to these grown men’s cries.

What is not at all innocent is the way these campaigns of suspicion are carried forward without a shred of evidence behind them. Voting officials in Georgia do not contend that fraudulent ID is a problem. The Indiana Secretary of State told one television reporter that he had no evidence that there was a problem that needed fixing. And these things signify that what is taking place in the voter ID movement is nothing but the privilege of white power to get up on any public stage whatsoever and impugn the integrity of an entire class of people.

“We don’t trust any of you,” is what the voter ID movement shouts out. “We especially don’t trust you first-time voters.” To be sure, those first time voters are not going to be trustworthy Republicans by and large, but that hardly makes them fraudulent characters. Baseless suspicion toward such voters codified into law by a party of white power is the thing most inexcusable.

The drama of American democracy has been a satirical affair. On the one hand a cruel promise of equality, on the other hand a shrewd laugh that scoffs: Equality? You’ve got to be kidding! In the photo ID movement the scoff drowns out the promise once again. When will the cruel promise of universal suffrage finally be rolled out like a welcome mat?

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net








More articles by:

Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front