Whitewashing Black Voter Suppression

Photo Source United For the People Georgia | CC BY 2.0

“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

– Charles Baudelaire

 In 2016, according to the Sentencing Project, over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population was disenfranchised; four times the rate for non-African Americans. In Florida, one in five adult blacks is not allowed to vote. The very face and thrust of American politics is largely traceable to this multi-pronged effort that marginalizes some six million Americans, primarily vulnerable minorities.

From turn of the centur­­­­­­­­y food packing exposés, to videos of African-Americans being attacked by police dogs or shot in the back, full exposure has yielded outrage, resistance, and reform. And, indeed, as voter suppression is exposed, progressive voter reform has emerged as an explosive civil rights issue—and an existential threat to the Republican “revolution.”

How, then, might someone comfortable with the outcome of voter suppression mute the building backlash without being dismissed as a crude ideologue or an overt racist? How might someone lose the shrillness, yet carry the Nixon/Trump water forward?

An instructive example is provided by conservative Boston Globe columnist, Jeff Jacoby in his December 31, 2017 op-ed. I examine his strategies to present himself as a neutral, data-driven observer of a world in which blacks are no longer vulnerable and in which mild cynicism rather than militant resistance is the order of the day.

The intellectual foundation of his argument, repeated with apparent mathematical rigor, is based on the assertion that black voting rates are often equal to or even greater than white voting rates. This lets him ridicule those who complain about racially targeted voter suppression by saying that such numbers render their complaint “impossible!” It also lets him display himself, as he does throughout, as a nonpartisan, “That is just what the data show,” social scientist,

Yet this is an odd foundation on which to rest so much, as the rebuttal is quite obvious: to say that many blacks vote is not to say that all blacks who want to vote get to vote. And in point of fact, they don’t—by the millions nationally and some 114,000 in Alabama alone in 2016 according to The Sentencing Project.

As he acknowledges, blacks have intense, historic motivation to vote. And clearly, many do. His data only prove that suppression of the black vote has not fully succeeded, not that it doesn’t exist.

It is hard to imagine that he is unaware of either this logical flaw or of the reality of voter suppression, whose existence, remarkably enough, he acknowledges later on.

So what lies behind this tactic? What is its force?

Even as his proof melts under scrutiny, this misuse of data softens the blow by implying that whatever suppression exists can only be trivial; after all, again, look how many blacks vote. Jacoby’s words needn’t be taken with the rigor with which they are presented to have a soothing effect on the casual reader. The soothing spoken message is that concern for black vulnerability is misplaced: “Black voter punched above their weight on Election Day, turning up at the polls at a rate that exceeded their share of the general public. Whites, by contrast, underperformed.”

The unspoken message—the dog whistle—is that there is a share of voting power to which blacks are entitled. A limit. A place they should know.

And they’ve already exceeded it.

What angry critics decry as voter suppression, Republicans defend as precautions to ensure the integrity of elections. In Alabama, as in many other states, voters are required to show a photo ID. There is no same-day registration and no early voting, and citizens with convictions for felonies of “moral turpitude” are barred from participating in elections.

Are these outrageous infringements on a core American right—or are they reasonable safeguards of that right? There are sincere arguments on both sides.

To his credit, Jacoby admits below that voter fraud is a non-issue. But what, then, are the “sincere” arguments for such laws? What is being “reasonably safeguarded?” Of course if you have appropriate ID, it is not an infringement. But consider those lacking formal identification, perhaps because they can’t afford a car or travel that requires a passport, or have traumatic histories with local officials, or fear the criminal justice system. For them, predominantly lower-income minorities, it is not a reasonable safeguard. It is, in fact, an infringement. But his appearance of non-partisan distance from “both sides” combined with the softening word choice of rights being“safeguarded” disarm the potential critic.

More significantly, he casually blends obstacles such as the lack of early voting or same-day registration with disqualification for felony convictions (which includes selling marijuana). Felony disenfranchisement is being challenged but remains the single most potent tool to suppress the black vote. Mentioning it in this list of obstacles without acknowledging its singular weight obscures its impact and lets Jacoby focus our attention on the lesser obstacles. Not mentioning it again buries it even deeper and softens its impact even more. Casual readers have no way of knowing what is thus shielded from full exposure.

But there is plenty of cynicism on both sides, too. Voter fraud, rampant in earlier eras, is essentially a nonissue in contemporary America; states without voter ID laws seem to have no trouble conducting fair elections. And GOP lawmakers have sometimes admitted there is a racial and partisan component to their support for such measures.

Credit to Jacoby for even suggesting that voter restrictions may be unnecessary and racially motivated. But consider his word choice:

“Sometimes”and “component”are casual, minimizing words which serve to diffuse this admission. More powerfully, the phrase, “racial andpartisan component”mutes the impact of racism by blending it with the less troubling politics-as-usual. Obscured is the fact that it is partisan primarily because it is racial—the party benefiting does so at the expense of a vulnerable racial group, not just a competing political party which can more easily fend for itself.

The lack of an ID law, an Alabama state senator once confided in an interview, “is very beneficial to the black power structure and the rest of the democrats.”

Having first presented Republicans “admitting” to taking advantage of voting restrictions, we are structurally prepared to assume that next up is a Democrat, “confiding” that his party’s black power structure takes advantage of their absence. But, in fact, the speaker was Republican Senator Larry Dixon who had worked for years to get voter ID laws in place and publically called blacks “illiterates.” The benefit he bemoaned was the lack of obstacles to black political participation. Readers unfamiliar with Greater Birmingham Ministries et al. v. the Alabama Secretary of State filed 11/6/17 would have no way to realize how blatantly they were being misled.

Voter ID laws are extremely popular across the political, racial, and geographic spectrum. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Democrats supported voter ID laws. So did 77 percent of nonwhites. To denounce voter ID laws as racist abominations when nonwhite voters favor those laws as overwhelmingly as white voters do is more than a little disingenuous.

Pollsters and politicians know that on many issues in many communities,people often hold contradictory positions simultaneously. Indeed, the nonwhites in that poll voted exactly as strongly for early voting as they did for voter ID.Moreover,45 percent of the nonwhites were “seriously concerned” that eligible voters might not be allowed to vote compared to only 26 percent of whites. This support for same day voting and strong concern about voter suppression (data ignored by Jacoby) is evidence that most nonwhites in this poll did not associate same-day voting and suppression. The fact that some two-thirds of Democrats also supported ID laws makes the same point. It is not disingenuousto point out that they were simply wrong, as its disparate impact on the black voters and on the Democratic party are well documented. Yet, of course, these results do, on their face complicate the picture.

And while this poll neither denies nor justifies voter suppression, 77 percent support among nonwhites for ID laws, even with the concurrent, mitigating numbers, is challengingto critics of voter suppression. Jacoby, for his part, deals with the poll results that challenge his position by simply ignoring them, despite his stance as a neutral follower of data.

For most of American history, black citizens really were disenfranchised, excluded from elections by violence and intimidation…If anyone has reason to value the right to vote, it is African-Americans. For people with historic memories of Bull Connor and the Freedom Summer martyrs, having to show an ID when voting is a trivial detail, not “disenfranchisement.”

Are blacks supposed to express mute gratitude for not being attacked at the voting booth? Having inverted racial power dynamics to make whites appear as “underperforming,”Jacoby shamelessly appropriates a shameful chapter in our history (full exposure of which led to full resistance) in order to send a blacks-should-be-grateful dog whistle, even as, again, they are roughly twice as likely as whites to be denied the vote because of this restriction.

“Census data shows that…black voter turnout was higher nationally than white voter turnout,” [PolitiFact] concluded. “And at least as high in the states with strict voter ID laws.”

This restatement of his basic argument has a revealing, unacknowledged admission. Note that black turnout was “higher” nationally and “at least as high” in strict ID states. But the difference between “higher” and “at least as high” can decide close elections; presidential elections, in fact. His casual language obscures this often critical difference by implying that the two findings are basically identical and trusting the reader won’t notice.

This doesn’t mean Republicans who champion such laws don’t expect them to yield political dividends. It only means that voter suppression is more of a bugaboo than a real phenomenon.  At the same time, that very bugaboo may be helping Democrats. The louder they howl about Republican attempts to keep minorities from voting, the more fervently their base may be galvanized to get to the polls. That too helps explain why ballot integrity laws haven’t impeded black voter turnout.

Contrast his presentation of voter suppression as a“bugaboo” misleading gullible folks who are “fervently” “galvanized” by “howls,” with the sanitized dignity of “ballot integrity laws.” His assertion that blacks are tricked into their rage and hence motived to vote contradicts his prior admission that blacks often have good reason to engage in certain elections. His portrayal of blacks as pawns rather than active agents contradicts his prior portrayal of an informed, self-motivated group. His racial condescension speaks for itself.

To repeat, politics is a cynic’s game. Republican strategies push for voter ID rules for the same reason Democratic strategies push for automatically registering people to vote when they sign up for welfare benefits or a driver’s license: Each camp believes it will work to their party’s benefit.

And thus, helping our poorest citizens to participate in the political process, even if politically motivated, is portrayed as morally equivalent to preventing their participation. It’s just politics as usual. And his image of people registering Democratic with one hand while collecting welfare checks with the other is yet another dog whistle with a long, sad pedigree.  

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In a time of harsh, polarized rhetoric and fact-bashing, Jacoby harvests respectability by cherry picking data, selective use of emotive words, and obscuring critical facts about racial power. The worldview thus createdyields his second to last paragraph; an upbeat salute to the American genius for fair elections.

Ultimately, though, elections come down to voters, who have minds of their own—and routinely upset the experts’ calculations. Alabama is only the latest reminder that when elections are free and fair, outcomes aren’t guaranteed.

Indeed, Jacoby is so keen to mute ongoing abuses by the white power structure that he throws caution to the wind with his concluding sentence, his balm to the conscience of a conservative:

In Alabama, as in the rest of 21st century America, voter suppression is a thing of the past.

We’re post racial. We overcame.

There’s nothing to see here, nothing to resist.

The finest trick of the devil.

Bill Fried is a freelance writer recently retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). He is a co-author of The Uses of the American Prison,

Bill Fried is the co-Author of The Uses of the American Prison. He is retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is on the Somerville Task Force regarding Supervised Consumption Sites. His op-eds have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.