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Jamil Smith: How Can African Americans Escape the ‘Plantation’ If We Can’t Vote?

Republicans paint themselves as emancipators, but continue to block our access to the ballot

In this Thursday, October 19th, 2017 photo, Clerk Beverly Wadley places a sticker on Brian Harnage after he voted using a new machine being tested at a polling site in Conyers, Georgia.

David Goldman

Republicans are fond of recalling a past when the party didn’t so boldly embrace racism, often noting that the GOP began as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s. They regularly claim to be modern-day abolitionists as well, seeking to free black voters from the Democratic “plantation.” If you accept that condescending and ahistorical framing, you might think that Republicans would be working to increase ballot access for people of color. After all, how can black folks escape this supposed political bondage if we cannot vote?

Georgia’s Randolph County is the latest example of this contradiction. The area is rural, very poor and very black. More than 60 percent of the 7,000 people spread across its nearly 430 square miles are African American. In November, they’ll help choose the state’s next governor. They’ll try to, anyway. Right now, Randolph County has nine polling sites. If Republicans get their way this Friday, the county will have only two, and voters may have to travel more than 10 miles in an area that lacks public transportation just to cast their ballot.

The GOP’s effort to erode democracy through voter suppression is now a key part of any election cycle. Rather than attempting to persuade Americans of color to support policies and candidates, Republicans have instead focused acutely on disenfranchising them and consolidating their white base. A July poll conducted by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that in the first presidential contest after the Supreme Court’s 2013 neutering of the Voting Rights Act, black and Hispanic voters faced disproportionate consequences from restrictive voting measures enacted in states throughout the country.

President Trump won Georgia, an increasingly diverse state, by fewer than six percentage points. There is now even more motivation for the state’s white officials to guard what was once purely red territory. This fall, its residents could elect Stacey Abrams as governor, making her the first black woman ever to hold that office in American history. Abrams is running against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp — who, as the state’s top elections official, targeted black voters when purging voter rolls and harassed suffrage advocates. Backed by Trump, and no fan of election security himself, Kemp now faces a federal lawsuit alleging that he allowed the exposure of more than six million Georgia voter records. It’s remarkable that there are that many at all, since in the last six years, Kemp has managed to decrease the number of Georgians registered to vote. Carol Anderson, author of the forthcoming book One Person, No Vote, recently excoriated Kemp’s record and labeled him “a master of voter suppression.”

Kemp claims to oppose the Randolph County measure, but Kemp ally Michael Malone is reportedly behind the push to close the locations based upon their noncompliance with the American Disabilities Act, which barely qualifies as an excuse. “Given his past attacks on Black voters and relationship to the architect of this plan, Kemp’s face-saving opposition is not credible,” Brandi Collins-Dexter, a senior campaign director for the progressive advocacy nonprofit Color of Change, wrote in a statement. “Closing polling places in Black areas is a transparently racist tactic in line with literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation and harassment by law enforcement agents during the Jim Crow era.”

On Monday morning, the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Commission for Civil Rights Under Law released a three-page letter to the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration condemning the proposal. Kristen Clarke, the group’s president and executive director, tells Rolling Stone that this is “letting them know that we intend to sue if they don’t reverse course. We’re giving them a chance to see the writing on the wall. If they choose to ignore that, we look forward to seeing them in court.” This follows the Georgia ACLU’s  threat of legal action. “These are the exact same polling places used in the primary and primary run-off earlier this year,” wrote Sean J. Young, the Georgia ACLU’s legal director. “It makes no sense to suddenly reduce the number of polling places for this November’s election, which will see far higher voter turnout than in the primaries or the primary run-off.”

Rep. Sanford Bishop, Randolph County’s sole representative in Congress, tells Rolling Stone that he is “outraged by the proposal” to close the polling stations and “will do everything in [his] power to stop this act of voter suppression.” Abrams tells Rolling Stone: “Every Georgian in every county deserves to have their voice represented at the voting booth and in our government. I am the only candidate in this race with a proven track record of fighting to make sure every Georgian can make their voice heard.”

What makes this potential voter suppression in Georgia rich is that it comes at a time when Republicans are reportedly basking in what they believe is a bevy of black support. The right-leaning Rasmussen Reports released a poll last week indicating that President Trump’s approval rating among African Americans is now 36 percent. That astonishing figure was widely celebrated by the president and conservative media outlets, but also summarily debunked — the real figure is somewhere in the teens. But since when have facts mattered recently? U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart, who is at the very least white nationalist-adjacent, told Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC this past Saturday that he had “a lot” of black people backing him, yet couldn’t name one when asked.

Clarke notes that the Georgia case is not the only one that her organization is fighting. The Lawyers’ Commission is also challenging restrictions in Alabama, Texas, Arizona and New York. “We are seeing relentless voter suppression and discrimination across the country,” she says. “I think that’s because there’s a feeling that this is a particularly high-stakes election cycle.”

The thing is, if Republicans truly want black votes, they may be there for the taking. There are black conservatives and independents looking for a political home — and even with the president’s racism, we have seen that there are always black folks willing to excuse his sins. Trump invites the occasional black pastor or HBCU president to the White House for a photo-op, but neither he nor the party see any upside in seeking their votes.

Impeding our access to the ballot not only smacks of Jim Crow, but it may ultimately prove to be a losing strategy in diversifying states like Georgia. Republicans are not yet at the point where antagonizing black voters will assuredly result in a forfeit, but that time is coming. The ascendance of Abrams and other candidates in states like Georgia is evidence that the GOP already faces a political landscape in which it cannot afford to dismiss any vote.

Republicans picked a bad time to elect a racist president and let the party’s bigotry become increasingly overt and extremist. Outside of select candidates like Abrams, who has a history of registering voters of color, the national Democratic outreach to African Americans remains insufficient. But if the GOP has such an operation, it is nowhere to be found. On the Republican National Committee’s website, one can read about things that the party is doing that make it look good to black people, or try to. But there is no hard evidence that the GOP is even attempting to win our votes through policy.

Republicans have ideas that they can sell, albeit cynically. Black unemployment, which began its precipitous drop under President Obama, is now at a record low. Ignoring how factors like mass incarceration skew those figures, Trump would like us to think that he is responsible for the positive job numbers. Rather than using that data to construct a pitch to black voters, Republicans bombard us with condescending nonsense like Trump’s infamous “What do you have to lose?” question and meager stats about his black staffers.

We are a few generations into the “Southern Strategy” that Republicans employed to attract bigoted white voters after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in the Sixties. Perhaps they’re pursuing strategies like the one in Randolph County because they are out of ideas. Or they may grasp that white grievance may be their sole hope on the national level — and now, in many states they thought were solidly red. Left to scoop up what black votes that they can with Kanye West and “plantation” talk, then block the rest, Republicans have suppressed their way into a box. They could use some emancipation themselves.

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