When Donald Trump did not win reelection in November, the coalition of voters who had celebrated his leadership and grown their overwhelmingly white base since 2016 did not lose faith. If he didn’t win, they insisted, the other side must have cheated.
They repeated lies about election fraud and crusaded to “Stop the Steal.”
When their insurrection at the U.S. Capitol failed, they went home angry but not deterred. What they could not do through intimidation in Washington, D.C., might have been accomplished by state legislators if enough of them had only refused to certify the election results in their states. Trump’s base got to work demanding that their legislators change the rules for elections going forward. The Republican Party has responded by publicly embracing voter suppression as its plan to cling to power.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 361 proposed restrictions to voting laws have been introduced in state legislatures across the country this year. Last month, an omnibus package of voter suppression measures was signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state for Georgia narrowly beat voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial race, bringing national attention to his efforts to purge voter rolls and limit access for poor and Black communities during an election when he was a candidate.
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Supporters of Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, leave the Capitol in Atlanta on March 29, 2021, after escorting her into the building. Cannon was arrested for knocking on the governor's office door as he signed voting legislation. (Photo: Ben Gray/AP)
As Kemp held a private signing ceremony with an all-white delegation of Republican men from the Georgia House and Senate, Rep. Park Cannon, an African American and a Democrat, was arrested and charged with a felony for knocking on Kemp’s office door.
President Joe Biden has commented that all the Republican efforts have made “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
A history of suppressing the poor
But the truth is that Republicans have been trying to dress Jim Crow up like an Eagle Scout for half a century.
What happened in Georgia wasn’t so much a return to some dark past as it was an unveiling of how far Jim Crow’s heirs have been able to extend the reach of his tactics in a nation that likes to imagine that it left racism behind with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
We are both sons of the South — one Black and one white — raised in a system that was set up to exploit the labor of our Native, African and European ancestors. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” Ta-Nehisi Coates has written. Though our foreparents shared this soil and the task of working it with their hands, Jim Crow pitted them against one another in order to keep wages low for all agriculture workers and prevent poor Black and white children from getting an education and voting.
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In our home state of North Carolina, neither poor Black nor white people could vote until Reconstruction. When they built a Fusion movement that won every statewide office in the late 19th century, the ruling class spread lies about Black men raping white women and mounted a coup to usher in the Jim Crow era.
Jim Crow mostly offered poor white people a “psychological wage,” as W.E.B. Du Bois called the sense of superiority that came with being able to drink from a “whites only” fountain. When the civil rights movement was able to build enough power to topple Jim Crow’s voter suppression measures, it opened the door for a War on Poverty and the multiethnic Poor People’s Campaign of the late 1960s that was determined to push the richest nation in the history of the world to reconstruct its economy so that it works for all Americans.
The Republican Party’s response to this Second Reconstruction in America was the Southern Strategy — a decision, once again, to pit white people against their nonwhite neighbors in order to hold onto political power. Its crusade was not waged in the name of white supremacy, however. The Republicans rallied white people in the South, the suburbs and the Sun Belt around the cause of “traditional family values.”
Paul Weyrich, the New Right political operative who advised Jerry Falwell to call his national organization the Moral Majority, also made clear to the founders of the religious right that their “leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Can we still live America’s promise?
Voter suppression is not new for those who’ve sought to hold on to power in American public life. Jim Crow pretended to be an Eagle Scout while using gerrymandering and “election integrity” measures to dilute the power of fusion coalitions.
It deployed divisive culture war issues in each election cycle to fire up a reactionary base. For decades, Republicans have used the power they gain through divide-and-conquer tactics to push economic policies that hurt poor people, the majority of whom are white in raw numbers.
Yes, voter suppression is targeted at Black voters. But it is also aimed at poor whites, Latinos, Asians, women and younger people. It does little for people who are against Jim Crow to call the tactic racism if we don’t understand the way race is used to divide the coalition Republicans are afraid of. In fact, if we talk only about how voter suppression targets Black people, we can reinforce the racist narrative that suggests Black people are cheating and that these measures are needed for the sake of “election integrity.”
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As ugly as it is to watch, the desperation of the Republican Party has revealed today’s Jim Crow to be much like its predecessor.
If a majority of Americans see this race con for what it is, we still have time to reclaim the hope of a multiethnic democracy by passing big, bold federal voting rights protections.
No Senate rule or tradition should stand in the way of this opportunity to reclaim democracy. To stop short of America’s current Third Reconstruction (this moment of racial reckoning and demand for justice, voting included) is to forfeit the promises of a more perfect union.
Bishop William J. Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He is the author of “We Are Called To Be A Movement.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of “Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good.”
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