An open letter to African-Americans:
In the late '90s, the Internet belched forth a rumor that the Voting Rights Act was soon to expire and that black folks would lose the vote as a result. Though stupid and untrue, the rumor spread like a dust cloud till it was inescapable. You couldn't get away from it in a confession booth. You couldn't get away from it in a phone booth. Everybody was up in arms.
Flash forward to 2012. Now the threat is real. There is a sustained effort to suppress the black vote as we approach this pivotal election. And what is our response?
"I don't sense that African-Americans are truly aware of what is in the process of happening or could happen to them," says Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "People should be angry. There should be a sense of righteous indignation. African-Americans and people of good will, Latinos and young people, should be saying, 'How dare you? The gall of you!'<2009>"
Lewis, of course, is the man whose skull was cracked in 1965 on a bridge in Alabama in the fight lack voting rights. Fifteen years ago, he couldn't walk down a street without being assailed by a false rumor that those rights were imperiled. Now, when the threat is real, he is appalled by the silence he hears.
Here is what is going on in that silence. In Washington, conservative Republicans are seeking to gut the Voting Rights Act. In Florida, they are, in effect, purging Democrats from the voting rolls. In Kansas, there is a law requiring a voter show proof of citizenship. And in 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are voter ID laws, either passed or under contemplation.
Conservatives argue that such laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. This argument might hold more water if there actually were any significant voter fraud in our elections. There is not.
In a speech last week before the NAACP, Attorney General Eric Holder likened voter ID laws to the poll taxes of yesteryear. He is right. Like the poll taxes, like the grandfather clauses, and literacy texts of decades past, voter ID laws are officially race-neutral. And like those discarded laws, these new ones have the intention and effect of preventing African-Americans from voting. Poor people, you see, are less likely to have photo IDs -- and black people are disproportionately poor.
Keep in mind that blacks are already disenfranchised by laws denying the ballot to former felons. Given the phenomenon of mass incarceration -- i.e., a criminal injustice system that will bypass 10 white cocaine dealers to jail one black guy dealing crack -- disenfranchising former felons largely means disenfranchising us.
Voter ID laws add fresh insult to standing injury. And let no one be fooled by GOP claims that this is not political. Mike Turzai, who sits in the Pennsylvania state legislature, inadvertently set fire to that lie last month. In a speech to a Republican State Committee meeting, he praised, "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania ..."
So where are we in all this? Silent, that's where.
It is easy to rally in the face of a tragedy like the death of Trayvon Martin. That was a visceral, emotional thing. Still, what happened to that child is only representative of systemic injustice. This is systemic injustice, and we should be just as exercised about it, if not more so.
From the barber shops, silence.
From the beauty parlors, silence.
From the pulpits, silence.
In the face of a naked attempt to steal not just an election, but a right that was purchased for us at a cost of bones and blood, silence. It's happening now, right under our noses.
"And we're too quiet," says Lewis. "We're just too quiet."