“Come In Here, Girl; I’ve Been Waiting On You All My Life”- A Review of The Great Suppression by Zachary Roth

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According to this PBS profile of her, Zohara Simmons “spent seven years working full time on voter registration and desegregation activities in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement.” She’s featured in Segment 1 of the Humankind radio documentary “The Right to Vote,” starting at about the 19:16 mark. She says that at the start of her participation in an effort to go door to door to register black folks to vote, she went to the home of an older black woman and, being new at this and quite nervous, she struggled to explain who she was and why she was there. She says the woman “looked her up and down” and then said, “Girl, are you one of those freedom riders?” Zohara says she “wasn’t sure if that was good or bad,” but answered “yes,” to which the woman replied “Then, come in here, girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life.”

Sadly, that “waiting” is still happening. Especially in this most acrimonious of election seasons, it’s worth remembering our history. Formal slavery in this country existed for almost 250 years. While emancipation as a result of the Civil War ended its formal practice, subjugation of people of color by whites did not end. It changed, sometimes taking on slightly more subtle forms such as sharecropping, sometimes manifesting itself in decidedly unsubtle ways. Either way, blacks were prevented from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship for at least another century after the Civil War, and though gains were certainly made as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, now, a full 4 centuries (four hundred years!) since the advent of slavery on this continent, there remains at least “two Americas,” one for whites in which opportunity for jobs and housing and decent quality of life remains good if not perfect, and one for people of color in which those same opportunities are hard, if not impossible, to come by. If you don’t believe me, check out this, this, this, or perhaps most egregiously, this. For example, in 2013 the ratio of median U.S. white household wealth to that of blacks was 13:1:

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As the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said recently, in the United States “racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing.” Like it or not, a person of color in the U.S. is more likely than a white person to be poor, to lack adequate housing or access to education or healthcare, is more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, often for trivial or contrived reasons, and is more likely to be incarcerated, or killed. And it doesn’t matter how old, or young, you are, as this story attests (a screen shot of which you see below):

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The epidemic of racial profiling and the murder of blacks by police has gotten so bad that the MA Supreme Court recently stated that blacks are justified in running from police whether they’re guilty of a crime or not.

In the midst of this racial crisis in the U.S.- a crisis which, it’s worth stating again, is not at all new but which has been newly forced into the consciousness of white “America”- (some of, I would argue) the country is being asked to vote. I say only “some of” the country is being asked to vote, because not surprisingly, those holding the reins of power are using it- and worse, abusing it- to encapsulate and perpetuate their hold on it. If it wasn’t clear from above and from any cursory but honest reading of our history, it’s no less a fact that those in power are mostly white and are the beneficiaries of a centuries old system of white privilege. Thus my argument and that of Zachary Roth in his book The Great Suppression is that there is a concerted effort to limit access to the ballot, especially by people of color.

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As the subtitle to Roth’s book, which speaks of “the conservative assault on democracy,” suggests, the book has a (“left-“ish) political bent, but that doesn’t invalidate his arguments, especially in light of all the independent supporting evidence. Indeed, it’s inarguable that disenfranchisement has long been used as a tool to oppress and “hold down” blacks. Zohara Simmons’ life attests to this as briefly described above, as does any honest reading of our nation’s history. The only question is whether this is still the case, and the evidence clearly suggests that it is. Perhaps more disturbingly, though, Roth argues that not only has systemic white privilege been perpetuated by limiting black access to the franchise, but there is also evidence going all the way back to our nation’s founding of a concerted effort to limit democracy generally so as to perpetuate the hold of the powerful few on their power.

Indeed, Roth argues basically that the nation’s founders were actually not all that interested in democracy. Having cast off monarchy they certainly had some interest in it, to be sure, but if democracy in limited fashion was a good thing or at least better than monarchy, it was certainly the case for the founders, according to Roth, that more of this good thing was not always better. It’s worth remembering too that the founding of the U.S. was not exactly an act of the powerless throwing off the bonds of oppression cast on them by the powerful. It’s probably far more accurate to say that the founding of this country was a revolutionary act undertaken by those already holding some measure of power, seeking to consolidate it by overthrowing those that had more. Again, we must remember that slavery existed in this country long before it was a country– and its impact continues to be felt. That said, the point is that many of the nation’s founders were aristrocrats– that is they were white, wealthy (male) landowners. As the just linked to primer on the founders, written for this election season, records one historian saying:

“Ultimately,” said Terry Bouton, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “whether you are talking about a main group of six or 60 founding fathers, they were all far from ordinary in terms of income, wealth, education, and social standing.”

Thus, some of them were no doubt concerned by the “egalitarian ideals” that were “set in motion” by the Revolution. As Roth says:

Starting in 1776, many states had loosened rules on who could vote and hold office, made elections more frequent, and drawn more equally sized districts- with the result that a new wave of men of a lower social rank gained power. The Revolution had also weakened social hierarchy, so that those on the bottom were less inclined to bow and scrape to their onetime superiors. The “spirit of independency was converted into equality,” one shocked aristocratic Virginian complained, such that a common peasant “conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.” To men like (John) Adams, this was deeply unnerving, because it seemed to threaten the values of order, stability, and respect for private property that they prioritized over equality. “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God,” Adams wrote in 1778, “anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Thus, Roth says:

It should come as no surprise that Adams feared democracy. James Madison did, too. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” he wrote in 1787, “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Roth goes on then to make the case that the founders sought to utilize democracy insofar as it was useful, which is to say, in the hands of the privileged, educated, (relatively) wealthy few, and therefore sought to limit the ability of the mob to vote, fearing what they might do with such power. There is a vein of this thinking throughout our nation’s history, which has ebbed and flowed with more or less access to the ballot by the (usually more underprivileged) masses. When there has been more access (especially by people of color), many of the country’s great progressive advances have occurred, such as the historic Civil Rights legislation and before that, the New Deal. When there has been less access to the ballot, things have moved in the other direction.

The New Deal may have resulted in only limited progress in the quality of life of people of color, and in fact benefited whites much more than blacks, but nonetheless resulted in some progress. Thus, the New Deal is important because it coincided with a historic shift in the loyalty of black voters. Indeed, as the official history of the U.S. House of Representatives records:

While New Deal programs failed to extend as much economic relief to Black Americans as to whites, the tangible assistance they provided conferred a sense that the system was at least addressing a few issues that were important to African Americans. For those who had been marginalized or ignored for so long, even the largely symbolic efforts of the Roosevelt administration inspired hope and renewed interest in the political process.40 As younger black voters displaced their parents and grandparents, their electoral experiences and loyalties evolved largely alongside and within the Democratic machines that came to dominate northern city wards.

Since then, Black voters have largely preferred Democrats, sometimes by exceptionally wide margins. As a result, and especially as the Republican party shifts further and further to the ideological “right,” Republicans have doubled down on the historic effort to limit  Black access to the ballot. Indeed, the Republican party has moved so far to the ideological “right” that programs and policies once espoused by Republicans have become anathema, especially when pursued by a thoughtful, compromising Democratic President, who “just so happens” to be Black. “Obamacare” is the textbook case of this.

The primary way that conservatives have sought to limit Black access to the ballot is through the raft of recently enacted VoterID laws, which remain a solution in search of a problem. VoterID laws can only prevent in-person voter impersonation, after all, and there simply is scant evidence that this is a problem. Indeed, as I was doing some research after listening to The Right to Vote, described above, I came across a report called Who Can Vote?, which is a 2012 project of News21, “a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.” Their findings are clear:

A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.

Thus, the argument that voter ID laws are necessary to prevent election fraud is, on its face, absurd, and actual data backs this up. What there is evidence for, however, is the fact that voter ID laws, coupled with all the effort to restrict voting hours and the number of polling locations, etc., unduly harm and disenfranchise black voters. Roth’s book helps to lay some background for our understanding of why all this is happening, and shows us that it fits into a much larger, and longer standing, pattern. Thus, like the older Black woman who Zohara Simmons visited back in the ’60s, some would- be voters (again, usually people of color, always those on whose “backs” the powerful have built and perpetuated their power) continue to “wait” for a day when their full participation in USAmerican democracy is not only legal but is invited and encouraged. It remains to be seen if that day will ever come.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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