I grew up with race in the news. I knew about segregation and integration. I knew about Freedom Riders and the Klan, Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo, Strom Thurmond and Bull Connor. I knew about fire hoses and police dogs. I knew about the March on Washington and the riots in Newark, about Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael.
Closer to home, I knew Stan, the lone Black student in my suburban graduating class. At least I knew him well enough to say hello. I knew Willie, the woman who cleaned our house on Tuesdays. She took the bus back to Newark an hour after I got home from school.
You won’t find the word racism in Dr. King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech, or in his last speech in Memphis in 1968, or in President Johnson’s 1965 voting rights address to Congress. We talked instead about prejudice. My unconscious prejudices were the product of unfamiliarity and the discomfort that often comes with it. I bore no malice, but I was aware of the separation between Black and white and the racial injustices that had persisted since slavery, injustices that were then rightly being remedied.
I was less aware of the resulting race-based disadvantages that had accumulated throughout those decades and centuries. While I appreciated the possibilities I enjoyed as a child of the middle class, I didn’t recognize the degree to which I’d benefited from the same system that had disadvantaged Black Americans, and still too often measures out disadvantage according to skin color.
That connection, I think, is what advocates mean by systemic racism. It shouldn’t be as controversial as it sometimes seems.
Sometimes disputes are due more to misunderstanding than to disagreement, more to presentation than to content. There’s certainly no shortage of bigots for whom Black lives don’t matter. But there also are plenty of Americans for whom they do matter, but who bristle and invariably reply that “all lives matter.” The movement might have met with less resistance if the slogan had been “Black lives matter as much as white lives, but Black lives are under attack from police and vigilantes more. That’s why Black Americans need a slogan in the first place.”
It’s not a matter of catering to white people with hurt feelings. There’s simply no sense in making an adversary out of someone who essentially agrees with you.
There are many degrees and species of racism. My ordinarily fair-minded grandmother found mixed-race marriages incomprehensible. That didn’t make her George Wallace.
Also, it didn’t make racism the root of every problem, then or now. That said, we’ve clearly not yet overcome our “crippling legacy of bigotry.”
James Madison denounced slavery as “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” He recognized the absurdity of basing that oppression on a “mere distinction of color” and regarded slavery’s existence as a mortal threat to a nation dedicated to liberty. He shared Jefferson’s trepidation that God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.”
Likeminded founders made establishing the nation their priority. They hoped the government they devised would, in future generations, offer the best means for ending slavery. It’s likely they were right, but that’s little consolation to the generations who remained in bondage, who suffered slavery’s aftermath, and who are still denied their full share in the rights our system of government guarantees them, including the right to vote.
Free and fair elections are the beating heart of self-government. The Constitution leaves the “manner” of elections and qualifications for voting largely to the states, with the proviso that state discretion can be overridden by federal statutes, court rulings and the Constitution, including its amendments. The 19th Amendment, for example, prohibits states from denying the right to vote based on gender. The 26th extends voting rights to 18-year-olds.
After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment prohibited denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Southern states responded with laws that excluded Black men from voting without mentioning race, color or slavery. A literacy test, often unfairly administered, and a poll tax excluded uneducated, poor Black and white men. If you couldn’t pass the test or afford the tax, many states added a “grandfather clause” that reinstated your voting right as long as your ancestors could vote before the Civil War. This restored white voters’ right to vote, but since Black Southerners couldn’t vote before the Civil War, it didn’t help ex-slaves get un-excluded.
These transparent devices to deny the right to vote based on race survived until courts struck them down and Congress acted in 1965.
Other racial, ethnic and religious minorities have faced similar restrictions.
Now, Republican-controlled state legislatures are enacting a new generation of cunning laws to accomplish the same shameful purpose. Why else would you prohibit bringing food and water to voters standing in line at polling places, especially when you’ve made the lines longer by reducing the number of polling places in predominantly minority voting districts?
People willing to overlook or even endorse an insurrection to overturn a lawful election aren’t likely to hesitate to manipulate a few statutes.
The motto of the British crown is “Dieu et Mon Droit” — God and my right. Under the 18th-century theory of divine right, God anointed kings and gave them power. Kings then used that power to rule the people. To rebel against the king was to rebel against God.
Our Declaration of Independence establishes a different principle. God, instead, endows the people with rights. The people then empower a government to protect their rights. If the government fails to protect their rights, the people can change the government since it derives its power from the consent of the governed.
The right to vote is one of our divine rights. It belongs to each of us by virtue of our being created equal. It’s how we participate in government by the people.
This truth is not widely held to be self-evident among the nations of the Earth.
It will be a day of sorrow and shame if we willingly join those nations that withhold that right.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.