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Who Cares About Voting, Anyway?

As the long-term conservative strategy to shift public discourse from explicit race hierarchy to “welfare queens” and low taxes progresses – all while protecting the structural reality of racial inequality in America – the slim gains of the Civil Rights Era have come increasingly under attack. The Supreme Court will be hearing a case in February challenging a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that ensured the access of minority voters to the polls. This case – and Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court case challenging affirmative action this year – grow directly out of the myth of a postracial America. Conservatives have suffered losses on other fronts recently, but they are winning the struggle to make racial inequality completely invisible in American society. The arguments in Shelby County and in Fisher both more or less boil down to this: America has healed, so we no longer need civil rights laws. In fact, these civil rights laws have become unconstitutional.

This is all a roundabout way of cross-posting something I wrote on the Voting Rights Act on a different site:

After the formation of the NAACP in 1909, African American leaders pursued a strategy to challenge restrictive voting laws. Despite notable victories in cases such as Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915) (striking down a grandfather clause in Oklahoma and Maryland) and Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) (striking down whites-only Democratic primaries), racist voter suppression was too pervasive to be defeated by individual lawsuits. Furthermore, it was sometimes difficult to prove the government enacted these laws with discriminatory intent, which was necessary to establish an equal protection violation. Compounding the NAACP’s struggle was the fact that a single case could take years to win.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained ground throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, white supremacist tactics evolved and became subtler. Some jurisdictions implemented new facially neutral voting tests purporting to measure understanding of the issues and the character of the voters. Due to longstanding systemic inequality in education and subjective evaluation of good character, these tests effectively barred African Americans from the polls. Incumbent white politicians further disempowered African American voters by gerrymandering voting districts to weaken the black vote and prevent the formation of majority-black districts. In order to halt this deliberate avoidance of the requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress enacted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to force state and local governments across the South to justify any new electoral rules and procedures.

In this past election cycle, conservative politicians sought new voting rules in order to reduce Democratic voter turnout. Section 5 has been the strongest defense against voter suppression tactics. In the past year, Section 5 prevented the reduction of early-voting hours in some districts in Florida and blocked a voter ID law in Texas. The court that struck down the Texas ID law noted that the required documentation would be enormously burdensome to obtain, and would disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Recently, federal judges used Section 5 to block a Texas redistricting plan that would have divided a population of African American and Latino voters into new, white-majority districts. Judge Thomas B. Griffith described it as a “deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”

Two points here: first, it is notable that stretching as far back as the 1870s, white supremacist laws have often been justified as race-neutral. Keep this in mind as you consider “neutral” voter-ID laws today.

Second, any defense of the VRA should touch on Emma Goldman’s famous dictum, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” The history of race relations in America is, in part, the history of literally attempting (and often, succeeding) to make voting by people of color illegal. This attempt continues today.

The Relevance of Scholarship to Social Change

It can go in any direction – you can have horrible right wing fantasy utopias realised in some cultures, extreme patriarchal ones in others, and so on and so forth. But I think we need to start thinking about history. Radical social movements, revolutionaries, reactionaries and all those things we’re familiar with in contemporary politics weren’t invented two hundred years ago. We’ve been taught that they were – that right and left suddenly came into being, and that all these revolutions suddenly started happening, in the middle of the eighteenth century. But I think they’ve actually been happening for thousands of years, it’s just that we don’t have the language to describe them.


– David Graeber interviewed in the White Review: on anthropology, anarchism, and more. He touches on how his ethnographic investigation of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, his recent survey book on the history of debt and money across societies, and Occupy Wall Street are connected.