Welcome to the South, Where Voter Suppression Is Alive and Well
We need grassroots efforts to counteract red states that impose white supermajority rule on Black citizens
I geared up to vote in person this year because, no matter what, I needed my vote to count in the 2020 presidential election. I researched my state’s laws on election attire ahead of time to ensure my Black Lives Matter shirt would not get me turned away from the polls as it had to voters in Memphis. As a Black man in the suburbs of Arkansas, the constitutional right to vote isn’t something you can always count on. But within minutes of arriving at my voting site, at a non-denominational church in the suburbs, I was inside and able to escape the summer’s last heat. I walked past the sanctuary, with its guitars and drums still on stage, to cast my vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in less than 20 minutes.
The presidential election wasn’t the only issue drawing me to the polls. Also on the ballot was Issue 3, a proposed amendment to Arkansas’ Constitution that would increase the threshold citizens have to muster to get an initiative in front of voters. Under current law, an organization must present signatures from half of all residents in 15 of 70 counties in order to get on the ballot; Issue 3 increases this threshold to 45 out of 70 counties. These alterations were by design: They empower the many rural, white, conservative, and sparsely populated counties over the more densely urban, diverse, and liberal havens.
The last major issue that the state’s citizen initiative put on the ballot was the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016. Thanks to the organizational efforts of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, citizens were able to circumvent the state’s Republican-dominated government, which ardently opposed the initiative. That year, 53% of Arkansans voted to legalize medical marijuana. I remember signing the petition to get the amendment on the ballot while I gassed up my Honda Fit at an ExxonMobil near the University of Little Rock. I was proud to support it.
White supremacy is political behavior. It is also a syndicate.
As a Black man, any reform to the way this nation treats weed keeps me safer. The drug wars have decimated Black communities in Arkansas and all across the nation, emboldening police to treat our communities as war zones. The Movement for Black Lives and the inevitable demographic change of the United States soon foretell a major revision to this attitude — unless Republicans successfully enshrine a government of minority rule in every state within the Union. Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court shows how their strategy manifests in the land’s highest halls. But they have waged their pocket war against Black voters, and Black lives, in the town halls and election booths of many red states across America.
White supremacy is political behavior. It is also a syndicate. Such syndication explains why, wherever you find Republicans in power, you will also find similar laws to restrict voting and to dilute the political behaviors that would allow Black lives to live free of fear and with dignity. In 2018, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the state’s voter ID law; most red states have such laws active. Arkansas actively uses gerrymandering to amplify the votes of Republicans; this follows a pattern where among the most aggressively gerrymandered states have Republican statehouses. Little Rock, the literal and geographical center of the state and a city with a large Black population, suffered long lines while the suburban community I lived in did not; this echoed throughout the country in disgraceful videos of Black folk tapping into the strength of their ancestors so they may endure long waits to exercise their franchise. We hope that our grassroots efforts will enable mere democracy for ourselves.
In order to be a viable party for Black people when Trump leaves office, Democrats must embrace the long, local, and grassroots nature of protecting the franchise for Black citizens. I do not like the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement, where our storytellers paint a narrative of a moral awakening that started in the 1950s under the watchful eyes of iconic organizations and Martin Luther King Jr. It took a lot more time to defeat segregation, the syndicate of white supremacy that reigned in that period of American history. The typical recollection of civil rights history ignores the grassroots, community-based work of figures such as Ida B. Wells, Charles Hamilton Houston, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins. Their work eventually built up the legal precedents to allow them to win in Brown v. Board of Education, it was their decades of groundwork in the South — of talking to Black people, the fuel and base of democracy — that gave them the experience and authority to point the community in the direction of protest and political agitation. Their years of community work eventually gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the political capital to pass sweeping civil rights legislation.
One day, Democrats will have the ability to ensure that democracy is available to everyone, not just lucky people who live in the right zip code.
I honor the marathon, local efforts of Ida B. Wells and her brethren by wearing the Black Lives Matter shirt to the polls, to marry the current movement which is grounded in resisting localized voter suppression and police brutality — the latest fashion of the syndicate — to the past work of my foremothers and forefathers.
Our civil rights story, mistold as it is, informs my own personal story. It is testament to my luck in my 34 years on Earth that it takes me a matter of minutes to cast my vote for Biden and Harris, all while wearing my Black Lives Matter shirt. I had to have a mother willing to do whatever it took for me to attend the best public schools in New York City; for a college to look at my lackluster high school transcript and see my potential; for me to patch together funding to allow me to graduate college at the top of my class; for me to secure employment in Arkansas that allowed me to pay down my debt, go to graduate school without incurring more financial burden, and to use the money I saved to finance a house in an Arkansan suburb — after grappling for months for a fair interest rate on our mortgage, despite outstanding credit — where I waited less than 20 minutes to vote for federal administrators pledged to protect my vote, and against a local initiative designed to amplify the voice of rural white people over mine. I know how improbable my story is. I designed my voting attire and exercised my franchise to honor the labors of my ancestors that gave me the ability to be so lucky.
The ability to express myself politically — to resist my state’s effort to impose white supermajority rule on its Black citizens living in its most densely populated areas — is caused by the seemingly impossible chain of fortune I encountered and not the mere democracy my people have worked for. My franchise is based on me having to be twice as good since my birth, and not the promise of a ballot for every citizen that is the American birthright. One day, either on November 3 or someday in the future where God or providence wills it, Democrats will have the ability to ensure that democracy is available to everyone, not just lucky people who live in the right zip code. They should look to the people wearing the Black Lives Matter shirts for support.