You just can’t be racist the way you used to.
Monumental legal cases invoking the 14th Amendment, the “equal justice” amendment, have made it unconstitutional to use blunt, explicit racism to suppress and victimize Black people while elevating and advantaging white ones.
To achieve those nefarious ends today, politicians must use a sneakier, less direct mechanism. And very often, that mechanism is to place burdens on the poorest citizens, knowing that poverty heavily afflicts — and can serve as a proxy for — Black people.
That is exactly what is happening now as Republicans, still fuming about the loss of the White House and the Senate, rush to make it harder for people to vote — many of them Black and brown people.
There are two ways to win an election: Convince enough voters that you are best suited for the job, or rid the electorate of as many people who would vote against you as possible.
Republicans seem to think that it is easier to devise an electorate to their liking than to make themselves likable to the broader electorate.
And to disguise the racism of their voter suppression strategy, they make voting inconvenient or too costly for the poorest citizens.
It can sound reasonable enough to demand that people have a state-issued form of ID to vote. After all, proponents ask, don’t you need ID to drive, fly or open a bank account? But that argument ignores the fact that there are millions of Americans who don’t drive, have never flown, and have no bank or credit union account.
Poverty is often a contributing factor in these cases.
Furthermore, there is a clear racial disparity between those who have IDs and those who don’t. As the ACLU has pointed out: “Minority voters disproportionately lack ID. Nationally, up to 25% of African American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.”
Some states have even prohibited the use of certain state-issued IDs for voting that Black people were more likely to have. The ACLU has noted the example of North Carolina: “Until its voter ID law was struck down, North Carolina prohibited public assistance IDs and state employee ID cards, which are disproportionately held by Black voters.”
When state legislatures make it less convenient to register or to vote, it also greatly affects the poor. Poverty is the ultimate inconvenience. It is incredibly time consuming to be poor. The things that people with money take for granted — like shopping for groceries or making a doctor’s appointment — require considerably more time and energy when you lack money. If you make tasks like voting harder, it means that poor people will do them less often.
Some people assume that poor people don’t care about politics and voting, but that is wrong. On the contrary, they are so beaten down, very often by political forces, that mere survival too often crowds out voting on their list of priorities.
When politicians seek to end the practice of voting on the Sunday before the Election Day, they are knowingly targeting Black voters. Many Black churches provide their members with a service called “souls to the polls,” which organizes transportation to voting locations after Sunday services. This is not only a communal, congregational experience, it also removes the hurdles of time and money for people who may not own cars or can no longer drive.
Furthermore, many low-paying service jobs have hours that are not as flexible as those of higher-paying white-collar jobs, which can make it harder for poorer people to find time to vote.
Studies have shown that Black people, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, disproportionately make use of early voting in general and voting on the Sunday before Election Day in particular. When those means of voting are limited, those voters are being singled out.
What we are seeing across the country are effectively Republican attempts to resurrect a poll tax — to use poverty and income inequality (which white supremacy helps to create) to further racial oppression.
We are witnessing attempts to use poverty and disadvantage as tools to silence voices. It is a further dehumanizing and delegitimizing of the poor.
In the early days of the Republic, only rich landowning white men were routinely allowed to vote. The ability to participate in how the country was governed was inherited or acquired in life — and many were excluded.
I have always believed that conservatives in this country have bemoaned the expansion of the franchise and have continuously fought to make it more narrow again.
I’ll put it simply: Because Black people vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, Republicans don’t want as many Black people to vote. Donald Trump admitted as much in 2016, saying, according to Politico: “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great.”
Suppressing a Black vote is almost as good as earning a white one, and you don’t have to make any campaign promises when you do. Republicans don’t want to earn Black votes, they want to erase them. And to do that, they are using poverty as their proxy.
Charles Blow writes a column for the New York Times.
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