The MLK50 Symposium was a two-day symposium commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s passing. It consisted of an interesting variety of individuals all inquiring into Martin Luther King’s legacies. The program consisted of four moderated panels each with four panelists drawn from academia, government, and the legal profession. Each program was moderated by one of Memphis’s distinguished professors. The panels were expected to examine a specific aspect of Dr. King’s legacy. The second panel and the one I will be focusing on dealt with voting rights.
The second panel was asked to consider voting rights and was asked to address current voting right’s challenges and strategies for reform. The individuals who were a part of this panel are the panel moderator Steve Mulroy, who’s a professor at the University of Memphis Cecil Z Humphrey School of Law. The panelists are Debo Adegbile, Sherrilyn Lfill, Pamela Carlin, and Rick Hasson. Here the panelists all examined the topic of voting rights and offered their views on how far we have come in the area of voting rights in the last 50 years since Dr. King’s passing. The moderator, Mulroy, initiates the discussion amongst the panelists by asking the question of ‘if they were to grade the progress that we have made since Dr. Kings time in the area of voting rights what grade would you give, where have we succeeded, where have we failed and to the extent that Dr. King’s vision has only partially been achieved, why do you think that is the case’? Sheryl Lfill is the first to speak and shares with the audience that the Voting Rights Act initiated a tremendous change in the registration of African Americans in the South. However, we then hear from Rick Hasson who bluntly gives the improvement of voting rights a C, “just to be nice”. He states that even though the Voting Rights Act had tremendous progress, it unfortunately lost momentum over time. Since the passing of Dr. King, voting rights have not seen the amount of progress expected in order to say that his vision of voting rights was fully achieved. Dr. King’s vision therefore, has only partially been met because of voter polarization.
The Decline of Voting Rights
Hasson explains that given that they are averaging voting rights over time, this is why it deserves a C. He backs up his claim by asserting that if you read Dr. King and consider his vision on what he thought the vote was going to lead to, you will realize that he spoke about coalition politics. He talked about African Americans and other Americans and how uniting both was going to better the lives of everyone. He talked about social justice and criminal justice and how all of these things were going to be improved as a result of coalition building. Hasson goes on to assert Mulroy’s other half of the question regarding where we have succeeded and so on. He explains that even though the formal right to vote is there, there is no material change in the position of African Americans and other minorities.
He goes on to state that political parties have been able to exercise private racism in order to reach intended political ends. It was done first by the Democratic Party with its all white primary in which only white voters could participate in. This was eventually done away with by the Supreme Court in 1944, but today that still continues. It conveniently took a new form. Currently, this new form is the Republican Party. The Republican Party has gauged their focus on the white population causing it to be strategically appealing to them. They have represented the Republican Party as being the place to go if you are a white voter. The Republican Party has also had a lot to do with changing the popular opinion in regards to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is being linked and connected to the black party more and more as a result of the Republican Party’s efforts. The intentions behind doing so is to send a message that if “you’re a white voter and you’re looking for a place to go as your party then you should not go to the Democratic Party” (Rick Hasson). Therefore, this distorts the true meaning behind the political parties. It causes an implied understanding among voters in regards to which party they belong to and what political party identifies most with them. So, there is this significant point being enforced by the Republican Party, which is depending on your race you will get a gist of what party you belong with. In such a way this racialized the political parties of the United States. This has created a divide within the United States’ populous. As a result, this has created what is referred to as polarization. Polarization is described as the tendency for a group to make decisions that are more extreme than what the rest of the members originally thought. Sunstein believes that opinions become more homogenous when in large groups. “More precisely, members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclination before deliberation began” (Sunstein, pg. 1). Sunstein backs up his claim by giving an example of group polarization within the United States. He states “White people who tend to show significant racial prejudice will show more racial prejudice after speaking with one another”(Sunstein pg. 3). Therefore, this comes to show how racializing the parties creates a larger and larger divide between races. This creates hostility and more people become prejudice as a result of attempting to limit the members of these parties to specific race groups.
This comes to show how group polarization can occur in any country and is not limited by any means from infiltrating even the most democratic nations.
“Chapter 1/ Polarization.” Going to Extremes: How like Minds Unite and Divide, by Cass R. Sunstein, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1–3.
Great post, gave me a lot to think about. Your last section was particularly interesting. I agree that the parties have become, in a way, radicalized. This is a massive problem, and I don’t know many ways to fix it honestly.
I know we have space limits, but that last section could be expanded by looking at the Nixon and Reagan Administration and the creation of the War on Drugs. Several advisors to both have explicitly tied the War on Drugs, the “tough on crime” movement with battling civil rights legislation and the empowerment of blacks. This is explored in great depth by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
Here is a flavor:
The Southern Strategy was explained by the infamous campaign consultant Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…”we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
A key advisor to President Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, was as blunt:
He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
Another Nixon advisor, John Erlichman explicitly tied War on Drugs to racial social control:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heron, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
I think that this is a very relevant post, especially given the resurgence of race inequalities under the current administration. I would like to push back on Mr. Hasson’s claim that there has been a decline of voting rights. While I understand his point that the absence of an improvement in the position of minorities is a concerning symptom of the political system, I would argue that this is a separate issue from actual voter rights. Considering the voter rights in America versus across the globe, we have some of the most progressive: allowing women, minorities and people of all sexual orientation to legally vote. I worry that discounting this will shift the focus away from the primary issue, which as he later mentioned, is party polarization. The party polarization occurring within the US political parties is reminiscent of the party polarization in France, where due to societal prejudices, racial and socioeconomic biases manifest themselves in political party membership. At the end of this post, you mention that polarization can happen even in “the most democratic nations”. Perhaps is this polarization actually indicating that the United States is not in fact one of the most democratic nations? In France this party polarization is one of the symptoms of their democratic erosion, and considering the United States is largely a two party system, if it is now a polarized two party system where there is no real freedom to choose one’s party, I would posit that this is evidence to support the argument that democratic erosion is occurring here in the US. In sum, I do agree with Hasson’s overall claim that there is an inherent problem with the political party system in the United States which is manifesting itself as party polarization, however I disagree with his claim as to the cause. While he argues that the cause of this is a lack of voter rights, I argue that it is in fact due to the polarization itself which is indicative of a fall of democratic standards in the United States.