Race is a social construct that was created for the purpose of subjugating entire groups of people based on skin color. The social construct was institutionalized and has been able to thrive for centuries. Black people are still fighting for freedom. Years after slavery is officially over in the US, we still see the aftershocks of slavery ingrained in American society. Slavery was about more than just ownership; it was about a fundamental lack of humanity. For centuries, the nation has struggled to prohibit the most repugnant forms of exclusion. Suppression has neglected to tackle entrenched structural racism. There’s an inevitable result in American democracy that is distorted in ways that concentrate power and influence. There’s a systemic exclusion of people of color from participating in a lot of things in this country, especially when it comes to voting rights. There is a struggle over voting rights in the United States which dates all the way back to the founding of the nation. Something needs to be done to ensure that the nation’s democratic institutions do not exclude and suppress communities of color.
The Enforcement Act of 1870 and 1871, which was also known as the Force Acts, was passed by Congress to end violence and empower the president to use military force to protect African Americans. In the midst of the Civil War, the United States ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments that granted citizenship to all people born in the U.S. The Enforcement Act criminalized voter suppression and provided federal oversight in elections. These laws broke the back of the first iteration of the KKK and led to hundreds of arrests, indictments, and convictions for those who sought to interfere with Black citizens’ right to vote. After the end of a twelve year period of the reconstruction, more than 1,510 Black Americans were able to serve as clerks, superintendents to congressional representatives and U.S. senators, they were now able to work in the government.
No vote, No voice
Voting and citizenship were largely denied to people of color until 1870. The United States is a contradiction. Its founding principles embrace the ideals of freedom and equality, but it is a nation built on the systematic exclusion and suppression of communities of color. From the start, so many of America’s laws and public policies were designed explicitly to prevent people of color from fully participating. Rather than the laws serving as the scaffolding and guiding progress, it suppressed people of color.
Moreover, these legal constructs are not relics of antebellum or Jim Crow past but rather remain part of the fabric of American policymaking. While the nation has undoubtedly made progress, entrenched structural racism continues to corrupt American democracy and preserve racial inequality. The inability to fully participate in the democratic process translates into a lack of political power—the power to elect candidates with shared values and the power to enact public policy priorities.
RACIAL GEOGRAPHY OF MASS INCARCERATION
Lawmakers continued to exclude and suppress Americans of color even after the 14th and 15th amendments. Black people are incarcerated at a rate about 5 times higher than whites, but prisons are disproportionately located in majority-white areas. This combination has tremendous implications for the prison systems’ ability to hire appropriate numbers of Black staff, and it gives the problem of prison gerrymandering a distinct veneer of racial discrimination. Policymakers have long been aware of this problem, the racial disparities between staff and incarcerated people at least since the infamous Attica prison rebellion in 1971. The Attica prison rebellion, also known as the Attica Prison Massacre, was the bloodiest prison riot in United States history where mourners and Inmates gave the Black Power salute as the casket was carried from the church to the hearse.
Black people in prison are overrepresented compared to the portion of Black people in the free population. There’s a substantial number of counties where the vast majority of inmates are Black, but Black make up only a tiny portion of the country’s non-incarcerated population. In these counties, Blacks make up 20% to 60% of the prison population yet less than 5% of the free population. Felony disenfranchisement was one of the most powerful tools for denying the vote to Black citizens during the Jim Crow era. The war on drugs targeted people of color for arrest and incarceration, magnifying the effects of felony disenfranchisement nationwide. In recent years, policymakers have tested the limits of how far they can go to prevent people of color from voting. Discriminatory voter purges, modern-day poll taxes, and the revocation of citizenship threaten to upend American democracy. The racist threat towards people of color, are xenophobic, it stokes fear in millions of Americans of color. This serves as critical reminders that some of the most powerful lawmakers in the so-called “free” remain committed to limiting full access to American democracy.
Even as the nation became more diverse, and increased attention was given to expanding voting rights, the systematic exclusion of people of color from electoral participation helped ensure that the nation’s democratic institutions and policies would remain racially homogenous. Due to the reconstruction, a period that followed the Civil War where attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problem arising from the readmission to the Union of the eleven states that had been seceded at or before the outbreak of war. This opened the eyes of people of color, they got a glimpse of what American democracy could be. But sooner rather than later, this was replaced by nearly a century of brutal suppression and disenfranchisement. In the West, U.S. states would routinely adopt measures to undermine democratic participation among communities of color. In the South, a politically mobilized Black community joined with White allies to bring the Republican Party to power, and with it a redefinition of the responsibilities of the government. After the war, the state’s lawmakers rejected the 15th Amendment and went to deny suffrage to most people of color until the mid-20th century. In fact, Oregon did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1959, which was almost 90 years after the federal certification. Oregon was one of the six states that refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. Oregon has a defiant history of resisting federal laws that gave Black people rights. An infamous racial attack occurred in Portland in 1988, when an Ethiopian immigrant was fatally beaten by three white supremacists’ skinheads on the streets of Portland. Mulugeta Seraw was a student at Portland State University. He was killed by three White supremacists who were members of the White Aryan Resistance who beat him with a baseball bat. Oregon was one of just six states that refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Oregon did not ratify the 15th amendment until 1959, a hundred years after the state joined the union. It was a symbolic adoption as part of its centennial celebration.
Forging a future equality
Black people should be accommodated for the historical wrongdoings that they have been subjected to. The notion people have that, “if you give it to one group of people, you’re going to end up giving it to a whole bunch of people” is convincing or epically inconsistent. In order to see change, it requires for Black Americans to move beyond reform and articulate that the current system is not working.
In order to have a successful democracy, it requires the full participation of its citizens. However, despite legal and policy advancements that have extended the right to vote, the United States continues to conjure the ghosts of an ugly past by employing new voter suppression tactics that target people of color. Remaining vigilant against these efforts and rejecting any and all remnants recalling the racist past is not an option. Federal lawmakers should fully restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, they should enact new laws to prevent foreign powers from targeting voters of color for disinformation campaigns.
All felony disenfranchisement should be repealed immediately by state lawmakers. Lawmakers need to pass laws that will prevent unnecessary poll closures and ensure that all Americans can participate in elections. These measures are not a remedy, nor are they exhaustive, but instead represent critical steps in ensuring that all Americans—no matter their race, color, or creed—can fully participate in U.S. democracy.
Black Americans do not expect the solutions that are needed to dismantle racism to be implemented and take effect overnight, but rather, Americans have yet to address structurally systemic racism that has historically preserved inequalities.
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8. If You Have Issues Viewing or Accessing This File Contact https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/46433NCJRS.pdf.
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