A Short History of Black Voter Suppression

The Right’s organized movement to suppress the votes of African Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, and the urban and rural poor by means of the passing of voter ID (Poll Tax) laws in states with Republican majority legislatures in particular has received some attention, albeit principally in non-dominant/restricted media places, although the Right’s illegal removal of legal African American voters from voting roles as was done in Florida in 2000 and other places as well and which continues apace again this year receives no mention at all in dominant/restricted media places and not nearly enough attention elsewhere.

But even where attention is given, the proper discursive analysis and framework are not employed because this effort at suppression together with the long-standing practice of the Right to send squads to polling places to harass likely Democratic voters (William Rehnquist participated in this in Arizona in the early 1960s, doubtless an activity that in its permutations into other portions of his socio-political and socio-jurisprudential orientation figured in his favor when it came to his nomination for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) is one of many clear examples that the Republican Party is very precisely an insurgent, authoritarian party willfully disaffiliated from discursive modernity and opposed to democratic institution, culture, and practice.

Furthermore, attention to the Republican suppression attempts does not see in these a fundamental and characteristic socio-political and socio-historical force, as opposed to merely an incidental manifestation.  Still less attention–no attention in the dominant media–is given to the Democratic and Republican parties suppression of voting and debate access as it concerns third parties or put more simply as it concerns the duopoly’s enforcement of a system that insists on voting rights only for those who would vote for them.  But whatever attention the Right’s attempt at suppressing the Black vote does receive, I must emphasize again that analyses always fail to speak of this in the larger framework of the Right’s desire to suppress not only voting procedures  but beyond this to suppress democratic practice and culture in their entirety so as to produce in literal terms a “Dictatorship of the Right”.  This is the actual meaning of the Right’s desire, particularly beginning in 2000, but certainly already initiated in 1980, to produce a “permanent Republican majority”.  This desire contains not just a desire for a particular outcome but the desire to transform in an authoritarian and anti-democratic fashion all institutions and forces that might prevent this.

Efforts to suppress Black suffrage are not new and were paramount and exceedingly victorious in the post-Civil War period.  Doubtless in the present epoch and within the narrow channels of electoral politics the Democratic Party loses out because of the Republican Party’s efforts to suppress the Black vote both illegally and legally (and of which the prison-industrial conglomeration long supported and built up by both the Republican and Democratic parties is a constituent element).  But the Democratic Party is nonetheless and even against its own immediate power-political self-interest completely acquiescent in relation to suppression efforts–as is by definition the dominant media system.  In this context it is important to look back at the 2000 election crisis in Florida and at continuities of this crisis in relation to the more advanced 2012 efforts to suppress African American and other Democratic Party voters.  And it is also important to keep in view the way all this in a still larger framework is related to the continuing repercussions of 1876.

Clinton’s impeachment and the election of 2000 should have brought back to scrutiny two crucial events in U.S. history: the l868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the l876 presidential election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.  However, references and allusions to these two l9th Century events always leave out the crucial content of these two events.  References only deal with formal aspects and this only in the most cursory of ways.   But the very limited nature of allusions to these events invariably imparts a false and misleading picture of the content in question. What is all the more troublesome about this, beyond the immediate fact of the willful amnesia and distortion in play, is that the content of these two events is still in play today.   But this content is also willfully neglected.  And in this willful neglect we can find one of the fundamental problems of American political culture both today and in the past.

Because today the willful neglect and amnesia in question are a product of a political and media culture in which half of the political spectrum of ideas is refused representation and voice.  In the dominant media outlets the only allowable argument is between the Right and the center-Right (which “center-Right” is at once delusionally and cynically–the paradox is only apparent–labeled the “Left”) with occasional token entries of the center-Left but never the Left or the anti-capitalist Left, the latter being the only point on the political spectrum of ideas where a synoptic and critical-synoptic view of the total social whole emerges.   American political culture is a severely truncated one, and, thereby, is a severely infantilized one.

During the Clinton impeachment columnists and analysts on a few occasions  alluded to the Johnson impeachment.  It was invariably said that Johnson’s impeachment was an illegitimate impeachment over a policy dispute as opposed to a legitimate impeachment in relation to an alleged illegality (the dispute was characterized as Johnson’s attempt to counter the Congress’ so-called, inaccurately called “harsh retribution against the South”).  But the characterization of Johnson as combatting “harsh retribution against the South” is misleading both in relation to the actions of Congress and in relation to the actions of Johnson.  Johnson combatted at every turn, both with his constant veto and in other ways which arguably crossed the border of legality, attempts at Reconstruction, which in its essence meant attempts by African-Americans to achieve liberation and full freedom.  Johnson sought constantly to support all Southern efforts to thwart African-American emancipation and liberation. Yet, the Republicans who sought his impeachment drew the articles of impeachment in the narrowest of terms, when, in fact, one could have argued that his level of opposition (whether within or without legal bounds and there certainly were instances where Executive illegality was approached) to African-American freedom and participation was so egregious as to warrant impeachment precisely on the nature of his openly racist policy and actions.  But in acquitting Johnson the Senate acquitted efforts to thwart liberation for African-Americans.  And eight short years later the Republicans agreed to completely end an already sabotaged Reconstruction, agreed to abandon millions of African-American citizens, in exchange for the presidency of Rutherford Hayes (who had lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden).

This “compromise of l876” surely represents one of the most pernicious moments in American history.  In exchange for the presidency the Republicans and the nation itself agreed and, therefore, set the Southern states free to enact and construct over the next couple of decades by means of violence and terror, but also by means of law and legislation an American Apartheid system (including the total suppression of African American suffrage) which would last for almost 100 years de jure and which de facto continues to exist in portions of rural and urban America.  The African-American historian, Rayford Logan, in his book, The Betrayal of the American Negro from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, called this period from l876 to the beginning of the 20th Century, the Nadir of Black existence in America.  The nation had refused to abolish slavery at its inception. Ninety years later in l876 it refused to oppose the construction of a new form of bondage and enslavement, Jim Crow Apartheid.  And in 1912 Woodrow Wilson immediately upon assuming office brought Jim Crow Apartheid to the previously non-segregated D.C.

None of this content, none of these momentous and terrible facts, were alluded to in 2000 by commentators who, in speaking of the election stalemate, occasionally made reference and analogy to the Hayes-Tilden election but only in the most formal and abstract sense  Nor did any of these commentators speak of the connection between Johnson’s use of the executive veto and other executive actions in opposition to Reconstruction and the subsequent Hayes-Tilden “compromise”.  It is worth noting that a few years later Rehnquist would publish a book on the Hayes-Tilden event in which he praised the agreement as a vital and positive moment in the history of the country.  When it comes to African-American suffering and abandonment both historically and in the contemporary moment, commentators have access to a profound and willful obfuscation of the realities in question.

Willful obfuscation.  During the 2000 election stalemate, vice-president Al Gore, was asked about the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida and elsewhere.  Whereas 1 in 10 ballots of white voters were thrown out in the recent election, 1 in 5 ballots of African-American voters were thrown out.  African-American voters stood a much higher chance of having their ballots thrown out due to more faulty voting technologies. Properly registered African American voters had a much higher chance of not appearing on voter roles because of Republican Secretaries of State “cleansing” actions in relation to voter registration rolls.  Moreover, in predominantly African American precincts there was a much smaller chance that precinct workers had access to computer links to registration rolls. Therefore, properly registered African-American voters had a much higher chance of being illegitimately turned away from the ballot booths than was the case with properly registered white voters.  To these “irregularities” Gore responded that he “had no first hand knowledge”, but that “problems of that nature” should be taken seriously. Yet, he could not get himself to call these “irregularities” by their name.  He kept saying, i.e. “problems of that nature.”  And by failing to name these “irregularities” as the institutional injustices that they are, by failing to speak of the continued racial profiling of African-American voters, by failing to speak of continuing efforts both in Republican election strategies and otherwise to willfully and illegitimately diminish the African-American vote, by his fear of using anything other than euphemistic language, Gore showed that he refused to take “problems of that nature” seriously.  Indeed in this he participated in the continued legacy of 1876 by abandoning African American suffrage, but in his case without gaining anything in return, least of all the presidency!  And now in 2012 when suppression is taking place in a much more systematized and organized fashion and as a moment within a wide-reaching authoritarian insurgency all federal, state, and media institutions and principals are acquiescent.

Tangentially this raises a question not so much about the Republican Party as about the Democratic Party and its leadership.  Why did Gore act against his own electoral self-interest?  After all, he had won the election–nationally and in Florida!  The standard answer on the Left (and by Left I do not refer to the Democratic Party which represents a continuum from the center-Right to the center-Left, albeit its leadership is always situated within the center-Right) is that Gore and the entire party leadership considered that to call the Right’s suppression of the Black vote into question and to do so in the context of a struggle against it exposes the entire system to a scrutiny  neither the Democratic Party nor any figure within the established orders, political, media, or otherwise wants.  It is a serviceable answer if however lacking the kind of specificities about power and its operations that are always necessary for any kind of emphatic comprehension.  Nonetheless, one still wonders why precisely that kind of individual who craves power, fame, and posterity (prerequisites along with the absence of any kind of ethical core) and who also, as a Democrat, floats within the ambiance predominately of the center-Right (vis-a-vis economic, monetary, foreign policy issues, etc.) but also in moments within the center and center-Left (embodying a certain generalized personal ethos consistent–albeit in weak forms–with prevailing notions about racial, gender, sexual orientation equality, etc.) would pass up the one unique and brief moment in his or her life when he or she might have a chance to play a role that would win them both contemporaneously and in terms of posterity plaudits for having “stood for justice”.   Here then was Gore, a middling careerist, suddenly placed at the center of a major critical historical moment, with an election in the balance and with the Right exposed in all its anti-democratic and white-privilege tenacity.  What is he to do?  Knowing that the election stalemate has been caused by Republican illegal disenfranchisement of Black voters, indeed by the Right’s open disavowal of any democratic practice or culture, given that the Right is disaffiliated from anything other than a totalizing will-to-falsification, will-to-manipulation, and will-to-domination, he could choose to name this and announce a struggle against it that would intertwine with the struggle to establish the Democrats’ proper numerical claim to electoral victory.  He could have considered that eventually the legal struggle would go to the Supreme Court and that surely there the Republicans would prevail in terms of the presidential election, but desiring a noble sentence in historical ledgers, he could have stated that he would not sanction by silence or inaction one more day of a two-hundred year history of the disenfranchisement of Black voters.  If he is to lose the election to the Supreme Court as surely he eventually will if the stalemate holds and if no mass movement emerges that could cause the Supreme Court justices to pause, then at least he can make the claim that in one brief instant he came outside himself and “fought the good fight”.  He does not.  In keeping with his middling status he steadfastly follows the example, mutatis mutandis, of Clinton’s denial of first hand “carnal knowledge” and says in relation to the suppression of Black suffrage that of “that….” he has  “no first hand knowledge”.  Retreating to the confines of hotel conference rooms he sends out his lawyers to call for a recount in four counties, a call that easily falls prey to the manipulative derision–and strategy–of the Right. And he loses to the Supreme Court majority’s will-to-manipulation.  And there is Gore’s epitaph–written all by himself: “Lucky to have had the opportunity to choose between a middling and anonymous posterity and a posterity of noble praise I chose the former.”  But it is precisely the epitaph of every Democratic President and every Democratic politician for decades if not more. Obama: “Lucky to have the opportunity to choose to fight for universal health insurance for all, a fight I could have won because a single payer system was already supported by a narrow majority of Americans, I chose the ignominy of opting for a plan devised by corporate power.”  Etc.

Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 extinguished the democratic principle of counting votes in the guise of “equal protection,” just that equal protection which the majority reactionary and authoritarian justices have been combatting and denying at every turn throughout their careers.  The Supreme Court adopted without alteration the Republican Party strategy of using the language of the African-American struggle for civil and social rights and applied this language in illegitimate and illogical ways for the sole purpose of advancing the Republican Party to executive power.  There must be a “uniform standard for the manner in which ballots are counted” was the Court’s refrain.  Yet, the election of 2000 revealed nationally what had been long known by the Black community and by portions of the Left, namely that there are vastly different voting technologies used county to county, state to state, and income level to income level.  There are vastly different monetary allocations given to equipment, staff, and all other manner of institutional supports for voting.  These divergences could be annulled if the country had Federal uniform and equal standards, funding, and procedures as well as expansive as opposed to restrictive mechanisms in relation to voter registration and voting availability–not to mention D.C.’s enfranchisement.  But automatic registration, extended voting hours, etc. etc. are opposed by both Republican and Democratic parties.   But even before the Court’s definitive use of the guise of “equal protection,” just there in the midst of the oral arguments in the Supreme Court (and in the discussion and commentary in the country at large upon the oral arguments), no one, not the moderate justices, not the Democratic Party spokesmen, certainly not the Republicans, nor media commentators, nor David Boies himself in the very act of responding to this issue during his court discussion, no one made reference to the continuing and contemporary unequal protection given to African American voters, indeed, to continuing willful efforts to thwart African American suffrage as a whole.  And it would have been very easy for Gore and the Democrats to argue that the very fact of this continuing unequal protection of African-American voters should have been enough in a country where racial injustice has known such a terrible intensity and magnitude, to not only call into question Florida’s election, but the election in its entirety.  Justice Ginsburg was willing in the court hearing to make reference to differences in voting technologies.  But about and around unequal protection for African-American voters there is placed a great and terrible and pernicious silence.

Yes, allusions to l876 appeared in 2000, but all the allusions willfully avoid reference to what was the seriousness, to what was the the pernicious nature of l876 and its “compromise”–and that this “compromise” continues to operate today, which is to say not just in 2000, but in 2012.  Voter suppression laws have garnered some attention, but the Justice Department and the Democratic administration and the dominant media system operate in exactly the same way that the Gore team operated.  Inattention, incidental and euphemistic analysis, and thorough acquiescence.  Dolce et decorum….Sweet and fitting it is…to be able to write one’s own ignominious epitaph.

Nicholas Parker is a social, cultural, and political theorist.