by Rajdeep Singh
In response to: “The Black-White Wealth Gap Is Unchanged after Half a Century”, The Economist
A liberal democracy is one that not only acts upon the desires of the majority but one that also protects minorities, whether they are religious, ethnic or racial. The interests of the majority drive the system of governance while those who do not belong to the majority are also free to express their opinions. Despite who forms the government, the minorities are able to prosper from the protection and safety guaranteed by the system. American democracy, since the creation of the nation, has failed to guarantee equal protection and rights to racial minorities, especially the African American community. Throughout the history of the nation, African Americans have been suppressed by the majority white population, a trend that continues today.
A recent article in The Economist titled “The black-white wealth gap is unchanged after half a century” took the readers back to a 1921 incident that captures the attitude of the majority white population toward African Americans. Known as the Black Wall Street at the time, Greenwood was a booming African American community in Tulsa, Nebraska until a white mob carried out riots and looting in the neighborhood for two days. This was the response after an African American shoe shiner was charged with an attempted rape of a white female. The white mob saw this as an opportunity to destroy the rich and flourishing African American neighborhood and make it clear that they were not going to tolerate rise of black prosperity. This is not an isolated incident. Since the birth of the United States, African Americans have been suppressed, first through slavery, then by the means of Jim Crow, and now through the use of discriminatory voting laws and the lack of economic support. Because of the long history of repression, there are sharp differences, both in terms of wealth and income, between white households and black households, with the mean wealth at $933,700 and $138,200 respectively. The numbers are alarming and show the inability of the American democratic system and the politicians to effectively act upon the issue.
The continuance of economic suppression of the African American community has strong impacts on American democracy. As argued by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens in Democracy in America?, the American democratic system does not work on one person one vote, but rather on one dollar one vote. Politicians need donations to run campaigns to get elected into office, provided by those who have the economic stability and disposable income to do so. In return, the politicians support legislations that help their donors build up even more wealth. In other words, wealth translates into political power by the use of donations and lobbying, which results in the passage of policies favorable to those with wealth, creating a loop that increases the wealth of the wealthy while those in the lower wealth brackets do not get their voices heard.
As pointed out by “The black-white wealth gap is unchanged after half a century,” the economic classes in America are not only separated by wealth and income; they are also separated by race. While the white population have used their wealth to create a positive loop, the poor African American families have been stuck in a vicious poverty circle. Since the wealthy have the most impact on policymaking, the opinions of the lower classes have been ignored, resulting in unfavorable policies. In the context of American democracy, the largest negative impact has come through voter suppression laws. In their paper “Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes”, Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Neilson found that Hispanic, Asian Americans, multi-racial, and African Americans are negatively affected by voter ID laws while the white voter turnout stays relatively unchanged. The passage and implementation of these suppressive laws undermines the core concepts and values of liberal democracy by disproportionally suppressing votes of racial minorities. Another stark example of this was given by Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith in their paper “Souls to the Polls: Early Voting in Florida in the Shadow of House Bill 1355.” They pointed how the Florida House Bill 1355, passed in 2011, reduced the early voting period, used more by minority voters, and eliminated voting on the Sunday preceding election day. Their research showed that on the Sunday leading to the election day, the number of minority voters increased while the while voters decreased compared to other days. The African American community, the data pointed, would be most affected by the legislation. After reading their paper, I searched the Florida Senate website for the bill and found that it had no mention of these changes in the summary. The bill was passed as an omnibus legislation, marking another major but subtle attempt to undermine liberal democracy in the United States by limiting minority votes.
The poor minority voters are stuck in their own circle. Because of the lack of wealth and passage of voter suppression laws like the Florida House Bill 1355, the opinions of African Americans and other minorities are undermined, and they are unable to affect the legislation process, resulting in the passage of more unfavorable laws. The suppression of African Americans through voter suppression laws does not only damage their communities, but these laws raise questions about the health of American democracy and it how it has failed to stand up to liberal democracy values of minority protection and freedom of equal expression.
“The Black-White Wealth Gap Is Unchanged after Half a Century.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 6 Apr. 2019, www.economist.com/united-states/2019/04/06/the-black-white-wealth-gap-is-unchanged-after-half-a-century.