At the conclusion of the 1984 Democratic national convention, Jesse Jackson gathered his supporters and offered important perspective to those of us who had labored long and hard on his presidential campaign, telling us, “We’ve never gotten freedom at a convention. The convention is a comma, where you pause and go on. We’re going to keep fighting for freedom – at the polls, in the courts, in the streets.” And then he concluded by invoking the phrase made famous by Malcolm X – “Freedom, by any means necessary.”
This week’s fight in the US Senate over the voting rights bill is a comma in a much, much longer story. It is a story that started in 1619 when Africans were brought in chains to America’s shores to do the work that created the wealth that made many white people rich. It is a story encapsulated in the country’s 1790 Naturalization Act, one of the nation’s very first pieces of legislation, which stated that citizenship is reserved to “free white person[s]” (a law that defined US immigration policy until 1965). It is a story that saw hundreds of thousands of Americans who wanted to be able to continue to buy and sell Black bodies go to war and kill hundreds of thousands of other Americans who sought to end slavery.
At its core, it is the story of the centuries-long struggle over whether the United States of America should be a multiracial democracy, or whether it should be a white nationalist country.
Reflecting on the defeat in the Senate, three dominant realities can help us make sense of what just happened and determine where we go from here.
Eerste, the cold, hard truth is that the majority of white politicians have always been reluctant to make America a multiracial democracy (between the House and Senate votes, 60% of the white members of Congress voted against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act).
Passage of the 15th amendment itself, guaranteeing the right to vote, was a ferocious battle that raged over months and multiple votes in 1869. Byna 100 jare later, in 1965, it was only after Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb lost their lives in the struggle for voting rights that Congress was finally moved to pass the current Voting Rights Act. None of this unwillingness to protect the right to vote is new, and we should be disappointed – but not surprised – at the conduct of the country’s elected officials during this week in which we supposedly honored Martin Luther King Jr.
The second reality is that many top Democratic strategists and leaders are behind the times and bad at math. The fact that Democrats put their political capital behind an infrastructure bill before taking on the task of protecting democracy was a race-based political calculation. The infrastructure bill was an attempt by Democrats to woo the support of white swing voters by emphasizing bipartisanship and brick and mortar, race-neutral, projekte. The scary policies associated with people of color – things like reimagining public safety, providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and combating aggressive voter suppression – were downplayed.
The mathematical calculation in determining that sequence of priorities was off from the start. Beyond the morality of the matter, from a crass realpolitik point of view, voting rights protections and ending whites-first immigration practices bring more people of color into the electorate. And people of color vote Democratic.
The third, and most hopeful, reality is that progressives can still win, and we need look no further than Georgia for inspiration and instruction about what is possible even in the face of opposition from the right and lack of conviction on the left. Stacey Abrams is very good at math, and she has been working for a decade to engage the 1.1 million people of color who were not voting in a state where elections were routinely decided by 230,000 votes. On the right, Republican Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state during his gubernatorial run against Abrams, improperly purged 340,000 people from the rolls in die 2018 election Abrams lost by 54,723 votes.
Abrams did not treat her defeat as a fatal blow; she saw it as a comma, and she went on to continue organizing and building a statewide network of groups and activists who could turn out large numbers of voters of color. For a long time, the leaders in Georgia soldiered on without support from top Democrats who couldn’t calculate the advantage of focusing resources in a state where the strategy centered on expanding the number of people of color voting. By late summer 2020, byvoorbeeld, Senate Majority Pac had invested zero dollars in Georgia while spending $7m in 85% white Iowa. Biden himself expressed amazement at his victory there, saying on election night, 'We’re still in the game in Georgia. That’s not one we expected.”
The Georgia model elected Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and delivered the current Senate control to the Democrats. In 2022, it can expand that majority, dramatically decreasing the dependence on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Massive investments in civic engagement organizations and voter mobilization efforts in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin can propel Val Demings, Cheri Beasley and Mandela Barnes to victories in their races against Republican incumbent senators.
This week’s defeat of the Voting Rights Act is one chapter in a long story. While a sad chapter, it need not be the last chapter, and by applying the lessons from Georgia’s journey, we can actually write a happy ending over the next several years.