Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The most urgent policy change needed to help dismantle racism in 2022 and going forward is ending the largely unchecked voter suppression that has targeted Black and low-income voters since the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision gutted section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which expressly prevented states from enacting punitive voting laws that disproportionately disenfranchise historically marginalized groups.
That’s the message of the latest “State of Black America” report from the National Urban League, an annual assessment of the progress and challenges of securing Black citizenship and dignity. The title of this year’s edition, “Under Siege: The Plot to Destroy Democracy,” reflects its sobering – and accurate – portrait of the health of American democracy.
The report found that Black Americans, according to an “Equality Index” that reveals disparities for Black Americans relative to Whites in economic opportunity, education, health, social justice and civic engagement, received a score of 73.9% – up 0.2 % from a year ago but well short of the 100% goal of a nation where racial equality is the norm. “The Equality Index is an aggregate analysis of centuries of structural racism that can be a starting point to crafting policy to dismantle anti-Black racism in America,” the report’s authors observed.
“Under Siege” outlines the four tools being weaponized against Black voters: gerrymandering, voter suppression, election sabotage and intimidation.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing congressional district lines for partisan advantage. In states like Texas and North Carolina this has meant that Republicans have been able to decrease Black congressional representation through gerrymandering despite an increase in the overall population of people of color. The GOP-controlled Florida legislature this week adopted Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s proposed congressional map that would add four seats likely to go to Republicans, do away with districts now represented by two of the state’s Black US House members and potentially prompt a federal court challenge to the Voting Rights Act.
According to the report, last year 19 states passed 34 voter suppression bills making it harder to vote, policies that hamper Black representation already dwindling because of gerrymandering. In 2022, 18 states have pursued 152 voter restriction bills. The bulk of these bills enforce strict voter ID laws, purge voter rolls, reduce access to mail-in ballots, eliminate providing water and snacks to voters waiting in long lines, limit early voting and make the entire process more difficult.
Election sabotage – efforts to discredit legitimate votes or empower partisan officials to reject or overturn votes – has since 2020 been fueled at the national level by former President Donald Trump and his allies promulgating the “Stop the Steal” falsehood, and those attempts have seeped into state and local election bureaucracy. Multiple states have introduced legislation that would allow elected officials to disregard the will of voters and authorize undemocratic results based on their party affiliation.
Successful campaigns to sow doubt about election security have placed local elected officials, often volunteers performing their civic duty, under undue pressure and – as the report details, many have experienced threats of violence and worse.
Fully understanding the report’s findings requires historical context, because we have been here before. Much of the contemporary GOP voter suppression efforts echo the actions of the Reconstruction-era Democratic Party, which used voter intimidation, fraud, conspiracy theories and naked violence to marginalize increasing majorities of Black voters in the decades immediately after the end of racial slavery in 1865.
By the early 20th century, virtually no Black elected officials represented the South at the federal level, and local politics shut them out completely. For almost a century, Black people lived under one-party rule in the South, a pattern that threatens to be repeated in perpetuity if the current situation continues.
The National Urban League’s “State of Black America” is, at its core, a warning of the perils of failing to address the steady erosion of democratic norms in America. Even after the departure of Donald Trump, this trend imperils the future of liberalism, democracy and capitalism – at home and around the world.
The open commitment among some in the GOP to anti-democratic authoritarianism (and the sympathy or silence on the matter by other Republicans), which many hoped might end after Trump was voted out of office, continues to flourish. Just witness the unwillingness by conservative media outlets to criticize Putin in the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion.
The longtime flirting with autocratic strongmen leaders in Hungary, Brazil and Russia by conservatives is more than just a troubling sign of the times. It betrays the fundamental precepts of a liberal democracy. The Putin Wing of the Republican Party is a crisis in the making, with devastating possible consequences around the world.
The political drift that has found some conservatives expressing sympathy for authoritarians such as Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban has added to the growing crisis of relevancy facing liberal democracy on the world stage.
But it does not have to be this way.
America can still be a beacon for liberal democracy at home and abroad by seeking to fundamentally protect the right to vote of all Americans. Black folks have always been the canary in the coal mine in this nation. During times of war and economic depression, the hardships and miseries confront those most vulnerable first. Black America remains, as the Urban League report demonstrates, more likely to suffer lack of access to health care, high quality schools and good jobs.
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Martin Luther King Jr. characterized the nation’s belief in freedom as “great wells of democracy” first dug by founders and successively deepened and expanded upon generationally. We face a similar fight to the one King successfully waged with the help of President Lyndon Johnson and millions of ordinary citizens at home and around the world. How are we to claim to be the world’s more important and enduring democracy around the world and yet fail to safeguard the sacred right to vote for our citizens at home?
We can start by choosing country over party and passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The chance of this legislation passing in the near term depends less on the outcome of this year’s midterms (where Democrats are expected to lose their majority in the House of Representatives) and more likely on the 2024 election. Democrats should remind voters at every opportunity of what is at stake on the ballot during the upcoming midterms.
Republicans who are good faith political actors (in contrast to bad faith political actors who celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday while refusing to support voting rights) should join together with Democrats to pursue a halt to voter suppression.
That toxic political weapon, although used most against the Black community as shown by the Urban League’s report, in reality threatens to upend the entire fabric of the freedoms long enjoyed by so many and earned by the generations of sacrifice Americans celebrate to this day. The best way to honor the heroes of past American movements for social justice in our lifetime is to restore and expand voting rights for all people.