Sunday, September 14, 2008

Voter Disenfranchisement as Racism Against Obama?

A couple of weeks back, Jacob Weisberg argued that racial prejudice in the electorate "could be large enough to cost Obama the election."

Weisberg's piece was widely slammed as over-the-top victimology. Still, of all the frenzied attacks we're now seeing on the McCain/Palin ticket, continued allegations of racism might be the only smears likely to gain genuine traction among voters - ironically, since polling data show that
Americans overwhelmingly reject racial discrimination. Still, for the left, "thar's gold in them thar hills." As Peter Kirsanow, at the National Review, noted during the primaries:

The tendency of Obama supporters to see racist impulses behind every criticism of their candidate has evolved into absurdity.
Nevertheless, the left's racism charge is the smear against white voters that just won't go away. In fact, Larisa Alexandrovna makes the case this morning that the Republican Party is essentially a party of white supremacy:

Their values are simply this: hate black, hate liberals, hate Jews who are not part of the end of times scenario, hate women and above all, declare an all out war on anyone who disagrees with them. These people are in fact the horror of the worst kind that is plaguing America.
John McCain's new "Disrespect" ad is allegedly more evidence of this:

Ordering a black man to show you respect you is pretty over the top in 2008. I'm sure McCain's constituency in the South and perhaps right here in Indiana will recognize the terminology from their (thankfully) long ago heydays of sundown towns and lynch mob gatherings, though, and respond accordingly.
The political problem with these allegations is that they're easily dismissed as sour grapes and hypocritical rants. The Democrats ran an ugly primary campaign, with top party members from Bill Clinton on down recycling common racial stereotypes from earlier decades.

If, however, it can be shown that whatever racism exists today is not isolated to the narrow fringes of the political spectrum, that racism, in fact, provides an apartheid structure of great white political hegemony, then Obama supporters may find a big enough payoff in pandering to the racial guilt of the post-civil rights white majority.

For example, the New York Times offers a dramatic look at the question of black felon voter disenfranchisment in its piece, "
States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts":


Felony disenfranchisement — often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests — affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups....

Muslima Lewis, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, said: “Really, you’re not having a full participatory democracy if you disenfranchise so many people. It weakens the whole system and, in particular, communities of color.”
The Times suggests that of the two major-party presidential campaigns, only the Obama organization has shown a direct political interest in bolstering the push to restore felons' voting rights (with the implication being that the GOP doesn't care about mobilizing black voters).

The clearest statement on the relationship between black voter disenfranchisement and election 2008 is Andrew Hacker's new piece a the New York Review, with the front-page title in the hard-copy edition blaring, "Prejudice Against Obama" (the online version is
here). Hacker's introduction lays out the political implications of the institutional suppression of black voters:

Barack Obama can only become president by mustering a turnout that will surpass the votes he is not going to get. This may well mean that more black Americans than ever will have to go to the polls, if only because the electorate is predominantly white, and it isn't clear how their votes will go. Obstacles to getting blacks to vote have always been formidable, but this year there will be barriers—some new, some long-standing—that previous campaigns have not had to face.

For many years, the momentum was toward making the franchise universal. Property qualifications were ended; the poll tax was nullified; the voting age was lowered to eighteen. But now strong forces are at work to downsize the electorate, ostensibly to combat fraud and strip the rolls of voters who are ineligible for one reason or another. But the real effect is to make it harder for many black Americans to vote, largely because they are more vulnerable to challenges than other parts of the population.
Hacker is a careful scholar, so despite his leftist agenda, I take his work seriously. He is at pains, for example, to avoid cries of "racism" in his piece. The problem, however, is not so much institutional prejudice (there are indeed lingering strains), or voter biases found in hard-to-measure phenomena like the "Bradley effect," but the inability of the Democrats to move beyond the image of a grievance-based party out to distribute racial reparations to its multicultural constituencies.

Not only that, the fact itself of Obama's historic nomination as the Democratic Party's standard-bearer makes cries of "racism" appear trite. Sure, we know the
Stormfront-types will never accept a black candidate (believe me, I know, as I'm being attacked right now as "F**king N....." at a pro-Confederacy white supremist blog), but the overall trend in voting rights since the 1960s has been toward the expansion of the vote and the empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups.

Abigail Thernstrom noted recently:

We've come to the end of a remarkable journey. In the early 1960s, most Southern blacks were barred from voting. Yet today, just over four decades later, blacks and whites from across the country have selected an African American man as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

The United States has undergone an extraordinary, awe-inspiring transformation -- particularly so for those who remember what the South was like not so long ago. In 1964, the right to vote remained a white privilege, despite the promise of the 15th Amendment. Blacks were routinely kept from the polls by fraudulent literacy tests, violence and intimidation. Without the franchise, they had little or no say in what policies their "representatives" in Congress might support, where state health dollars would go or which local streets would get sidewalks. To have the vote was to belong to the American community; the disfranchised had been stripped, in a fundamental sense, of their citizenship. There were, of course, no black elected officials from the South....

But in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 63% of blacks answered "yes" to the question: "Do you think it's possible your child could grow up to be president or not?" - a higher figure than that for whites.

Whatever your politics, Barack Obama's moment is our moment too - the end of one story and the beginning of another. A moment in which to celebrate.
Arguments and statistics like this won't likely satisfy race-conscious "Blood of Martyrs" activists in the current Democratic Party base, but notwithstanding remaining problems concerning the voting rights of ex-convicts, the United States today is living the dream that Martin Luther King envisioned during a long, hot summer 45-years ago.

Photo Credit: New York Times