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Black Voter disenfranchisement in 2008: Jim Crow Returns

The Michigan Messenger reported on Sept. 10, that, “The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Mich., a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.”

The chairman, it seems, knows his racial history and against this backdrop, he and the party plan to use the knowledge to revive Jim Crow. In the 1890s many Southern states employed an institutional approach to Black voter disenfranchisement. Among the most popular tools were: the grandfather clause which made clear that the right to vote did not apply to Blacks because in order to have this right one must have been a citizen or a descendant of a citizen who had the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867. Of course, given the exclusion of Blacks from citizenship during this time, the grandfather clause was an effective disenfranchisement tool. The tool kit also included literacy tests of which there were many versions and where registrars of elections ensured that Blacks were given tests that they could never pass given the way the tests were designed. When it was learned that Blacks were being tutored by civil rights activists to pass the tests, state officials changed the test without notice to the test takers.

States also utilized poll taxes that permitted any adult male, whose father or grandfather voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery, to vote without having to pay the poll tax. Blacks could not vote without paying the poll tax because their fathers or grandfathers were legally excluded from voting prior to the abolition of slavery.

The Democratic Party devised a system that ensured that the nomination of a candidate to a position was tantamount to an election. In an effort to exclude Blacks from elected office, the Democratic Party adopted a rule in several states that excluded Blacks from membership in the party and thus participation in the political process. The 15th Amendment which gave Black men the right to vote was not implicated because in theory the aforementioned tools theoretically applied equally to Blacks and Whites. However, in application, these tools were only used to disenfranchise Black voters.

In an effort to ensure that Blacks and their sympathizers got the message that the color of their skin disqualified them from voting, purveyors of White supremacy ensured that the tools were enforced by lynching. Railroad companies sold tickets to the lynchings and Whites proudly attended some even taking photographs that they exchanged freely. A search of the archives of Jim Crow materials revealed whites posing with glee at the dismembered bodies of Blacks. In fact, many Whites brought their children to celebrate state-sanctioned violence against Blacks.

Many of us believe that Jim Crow is no longer a way of life in America. The decision by the Republican Party in Macomb County reminds us that Jim Crow has returned on steroids. That is, whereas the old Jim Crow made no attempt to cover up its naked and virulent racism; the new Jim Crow tells us that this is not about race but about residency. In this case, the Republican Party knows that at the federal level, Congress has passed legislation to “help people stay in their homes.” In fact, John McCain has made this a central tenant of his campaign. Yet he has not denounced the efforts to revive Jim Crow and disenfranchise Blacks by the Republican Party.

Like the Jim Crow era, the Republican Party in the “post-racial” era of 2008 will claim that it is not targeting Blacks since anyone including Whites who have been subject to foreclosure, if the party has its way, loses the right to vote. The reality is that more Blacks than Whites have subprime mortgages subject to foreclosure and thus, according to this plan, disenfranchisement.

The Republican Party understands that it cannot use naked racial politics in this cycle with Sen. Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket. However, it also realizes that it can resort to racial code by attempting to use Michigan law which allows challenges to voter qualification. By doing so, it can claim to be preventing voter fraud. Just like Whites in the Jim Crow era claimed to be protecting the white race from extinction by prohibiting interracial marriage and that because White people had bigger heads, they had bigger brains.

Like the system devised by the Democratic Party at the time, the Republican Party has devised a system to disenfranchise Blacks from voting by claiming that being subject to foreclosure also means being subject to losing the right to vote. An objective analysis of the causes of many foreclosures reveals that many Blacks are the subject of foreclosure because banks and other lenders gave them loans that the banks knew were inappropriate in the first instance. Moreover, many people who face foreclosure are encouraged to seek refinancing, negotiate more favorable terms and stay in their homes. The “loss of residency” argument by the Republican Party is at best a specious one. Like the poll tax, the Republican Party requires that Blacks pay their unscrupulous lenders or lose the right to vote. Should Blacks who are renters and have been evicted from their homes face the same fate?

Finally, the Republican Party seeks to strip Blacks of their right to vote not because they have committed a crime but because of financial hardship. The Grand Ole Party talks about its big tent. The Macomb County strategy reminds us that that big tent is undergirded by racism, skullduggery and Jim Crow principles. In December of 1898 the Richmond Times supported the move for disfranchisement in Virginia in the following words: “If we disfranchise the great body of Negroes, let us do so openly and above board and let there be an end of all sorts of jugglery.” In 2008, The Republican Party has taken up the charge.


Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University and author of a new book, The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post-racial” America (2008).

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