Power to the people

Our third week of our third Black Light focuses on the political system. We’re coming to this a mere month after the swearing in of the historic 116th US Congress. This is the first time more than 100 women are serving in the House of Representatives, and members of color were elected in more states than ever before, including nine new Black members. The New York Times took portraits of 130 of these women in a style that has typically been dominated by the white men that control power.

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“Many of these women, spanning generations, serve as firsts in Congress: the first women representing their states, the first female combat veteran, the first Native American women, the first Muslim women, the first openly gay member of the Senate, the first woman Speaker of the House — the list goes on.”

The article also reminds readers that women of color serving in government is still an incredibly recent occurrence in the United States: the first woman of color in the House (Japanese American Patsy Takemoto Mink) was not voted in until 1964 (followed by Shirley Chisholm in 1969), the first Black female senator (Carol Moseley Braun) in 1992. Until 2013, no two Black senators (of any gender identity) had served at the same time.

Having voices of color (and Black women in particular) is crucial for representation. The people we elect bring their life experiences, their concerns, and their constituencies to the policy decisions that they make. A room full of white men cannot adequately capture and represent the diverse voices and needs of 300 million people.

2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that about 4 in 10 people of color thought that getting more Black people elected to office would be a very effective tactic for groups seeking to achieve racial equality.

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Electing diverse voices means working against a system of entrenched white power that will not go quietly into the night. In large part, this stems from silencing the voices of people of color at the most fundamental level: the right to vote. Without the vote, people cannot even attempt to put in power someone who will represent their interests.

Some may say, “But everyone has the right to vote now! Racism is over!” Over the course of the week, we’ll be discussing some of the various impediments to voting that still exist. Much of this is organized along the same lines as Carol Anderson’s excellent book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.” While we’ll provide a few highlights, we highly recommend that you read this book for the week. It’s only 150 pages long and absolutely essential reading.

Disfranchisement has been one of the main legacies of enslavement and an attempt to keep Black people powerless. As Anderson notes, Reconstruction brought many Black people into government, and despite many successful efforts, including establishing the public school system, the view that black people were unfit to make laws that would apply to white people was widespread – and the desire was to remove Black people from power.

Whites did this in a variety of ways. Outright violence and threats were one. Working “within the system” was another. Literacy and understanding tests were implemented as a fundamental pillar of Jim Crow Laws – something clearly biased in a society that provided better schooling to white students (and in many cases, didn’t even provide high schools for black students). When registering to vote, white people often received short, simple sentences from the Constitution, while Black people were given complicated sections that would baffle anyone. Registrars had incredible amounts of discretion, and their decisions were final and non-appealable.

There were also poll taxes. Black people typically made much less than white counterparts, meaning the fee was more burdensome. In many cases, it needed to be paid to local law enforcement such as sheriffs, who were, as Anderson puts it, “notorious in the black community for their racism and brutality.” The tax was often due months before voting. Shockingly, the tax was also cumulative, meaning that to vote in one year’s election, a citizen had to pay for all of the other years they were previously able to vote, even if they hadn’t.

All these methods were effective and resulted in a drop in the number of registered and participating Black voters. Poll taxes and literacy tests are no longer allowed, but an equally insidious set of “unbiased” impediments to voting have taken their place. Stay tuned for more this week.

Action item: get your copy of “One Person, No Vote.” Start reading.

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