A Racist Elephant in Our Living Room
an elephant in our electoral living room that Democratic leaders want to
hide. In all the talk about cranky voting machines, chads and butterflies,
this is one topic the Gore camp has not touched. It will hurt them. It has
already. In this case, the pachyderm is institutional racism, and in an
election of losers it has come out on top.
the big picture: in election 2000, 90 percent of African Americans voted
for Gore, as did 63 percent of Latinos and 55 percent of Asians (exit-poll
data on Native Americans is unavailable but they've historically voted
Democratic.) The popular vote - that national, pro-Democrat majority -- is
disproportionately people of color. Thanks to the winner-take all, Electoral
College system, it counts for naught.
the contested state of Florida, the Black vote was up a huge 65 percent. In
a state where thirty-one percent of all Black men may not vote because of an
1868 ban on felons, Blacks contributed 16 percent (up from 10 percent) of the
turnout, and nine out of ten voted Democratic. Again, disproportionately, their
votes won't count.
day one after the election, there was a story in the Florida papers about an
unauthorized police roadblock, stopping cars not a mile from a Black church-turned-
polling-booth. NAACP volunteers reported being swamped with complaints
from registered voters who had found it impossible to vote. They heard
stories of intimidation at and around polling places; demands for superfluous
ID; people complained about a pattern of singling out Black men and youths
for criminal background checks, and in call after call, would-be voters
complained they'd been denied language interpretation, and other help at
now it's clear that overwhelmed election workers made a mass of mistakes but
those mistakes were laced through with some clear intent to suppress some votes.
A full three weeks after the election The New York Times finally took a
serious look and reported that -anticipating a large turnout in a tight race
-- Florida election officials had given laptop computers to precinct workers
so they could have direct access to the state's voter rolls, but the computers
only went to some precincts, and only one went to a precinct whose people
were predominantly Black. The technology gap in the no-laptop precincts
forced the workers there to rely on a few phone lines to head office.
Voters whose names did not appear on the rolls were held up while workers
tried to get through on the phone, for hours, or until they gave up.
those who voted, there was another technology glitch. 185,000 Floridians cast
ballots that did not count. Theirs were the ballots that had been punched
too few or too many times, or were otherwise flawed. Flaws too, seem to
have followed race lines. In an election that turned on a few hundred votes,
Floridians whose ballots failed to register a mark for President were much
more likely to have voted with computer punch cards than optical scanning
machines. In Miami Dade, the county with the most votes cast, predominantly
Black precincts saw their votes thrown out at four times the rate of white
precincts: according to the Times, 1 out of 11 ballots in predominantly
black precincts were rejected, a total of 9,904.
multi-racial Palm Beach, home of the infamous butterfly ballot, and Duval,
where candidates' names were spread across two pages despite what the published
ballot had shown, produced thirty one percent of Florida's discarded
ballots (but only twelve percent of the total votes cast.) In Duval, which
has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the nation, more than 26,000
votes were rejected, 9,000 from precincts that were predominantly Black.
Floridians who found themselves "scrubbed" off the voting rolls
weren't purged accidentally, reports Gregory Palast for Salon.com. Florida
Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid a private firm, ChoicePoint, $4
million to "cleanse" the voting rolls, and the firm used the
state's felon-ban, to exclude eight thousand voters who had never
committed a felony. ChoicePoint is a Republican outfit. Board members
include former New York Police commissioner Howard Safir and billionaire
Ken Langone, chair of the fundraising committee for Mayor Giuliani's
aborted New York Senate bid. The erroneous data wasn't their doing,
ChoicePoint complains, the names came, raw, from the state of Texas. They
were supposed to be reviewed locally, but they were distributed
un-reviewed. African Americans dominate. (The 8,000 wrong names were
"a minor glitch" ChoicePoint told Palast; a glitch fifteen times
the size of the Texas Governor's lead.)
for that election morning police checkpoint, near Tallahassee, Robert Chamber,
a Black resident, told the Guardian UK he knew what it was about: "putting
fear in people's hearts…." The Florida panhandle is home to the largest
concentration of neo-confederate white supremacist groups in the US.
But this problem is no neo-nazi plot - it's racism of the
institutional, not the exceptional kind, and even more devastating than
the statistics has been Democratic leadership's silence. While African
Americans in huge numbers know there was massive voter fraud, harassment
and intimidation a la Jim Crow, the Democratic Party's white top-dogs have
resolutely refused to talk about voting rights, race or racism - Why? For
fear it will hurt them in the court of public opinion? Among white swing
voters and southern Democrats? Already hurting in all of those places,
they're trifling with one of the few solid voting blocks they've got left,
(Blacks, Latinos, Jews.)
NAACP came out strong, the weekend after the election, holding public hearings
and gathering 300 pages of legally sworn testimony from 486 people who say
they were denied their right to vote. With the Congressional Black Caucus
the NAACP wrote to Janet Reno seeking a Justice Department investigation
into possible violations of the Voting Rights Act. That was back on
November 14th. Since then, the Gore campaign has filed dozens of lawsuits
- not one deals with violations of voting rights. The Justice Department
has initiated what officials go out of their way to characterize as a
preliminary inquiry, not an investigation. (Alligator-wrestler Reno is scared
to stir the waters in her home-state, where she's hoping to retire any day
now, some say.)
Gore team has chosen to try to eek some votes out of three counties with manual
counts, and to make much of butterflies and chards, but nothing of race.
(Recently, Gore told a reporter he was "very troubled" by the
"serious allegations." That's it.) His racist denial of the
seriousness of racism makes nonsense out of US politics.
Electoral College is a tool of racism. As Yale's Akhil Reed Amar wrote in the
New York Times, "the College was designed at the founding of the country
to help one group - white Southern males - and this year, it has
apparently done just that."
the years after the forced-end of slavery, former slave states like Florida
imposed those felon-disenfranchisement laws, precisely to disempower freed-but-impoverished
Blacks. The political parties crafted the statewide primary system into
what amounted to a white-man's private club to keep the newly enfranchised
under the old establishment's control. Then came literacy tests and poll
taxes - voters had to keep their tax-receipts on file - anything to keep
electoral power in white hands. For an idea of what those tackling
literacy tests faced, consider: under Jim Crow, Florida required that
textbooks used by the public school children of one race be kept separate
from those used by the other -- even in storage.
the 1965 Act was passed, states did everything they could to dilute Black
influence. Winner-take all systems, or absolute majority vote requirements
were embraced to keep black candidates from winning over split fields of
white candidates in local races - in just the same way as winner-take-all
works in the presidential contest. More offices were filled by
appointment. Legislative and congressional district lines were redrawn to keep
black voting strength submerged.
of this requires looking back very far: the same House Speaker, Tom Feeney,
who wants the Florida legislature to select a Bush slate of Electors no
matter what the vote-counters count, suggested reintroducing literacy tests
just two weeks ago: "Voter confusion is not a reason for whining or crying
or having a revote," said Feeney. "It may be a reason to require
literacy tests." (Palm Beach Post, 11/16.)
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who will may well be the final arbiter of
which votes get counted and which (white) man gets the White House, is William
Rehnquist, a segregationist from way back.
1962, Republican activist William (then "Bill") Rehnquist was the
leader of Operation Eagle Eye, a flying squad of GOP lawyers that swept
through polling places in south Phoenix to question the right of minority
voters to cast their ballots. As Dave Wagner reported in the Arizona
Republic last year, Rehnquist defended keeping African Americans out of
stores and restaurants in Phoenix. In 1964, at the Bethune Precinct,
(which was 40 percent Hispanic and 90 percent Democratic) Rehnquist and
Operation Eagle Eye activists challenged every Black and Mexican voter's
ability to read the Constitution of the United States in the English
language (then a requirement.)
result, according to one witness, was "a line a half-block long, four
abreast…They wanted people to become frustrated and leave."
In his testimony to a US Senate hearing on his appointment to the Supreme
Court, Rehnquist denied that he officially challenged anyone's right to
vote. Just as today's defenders of Bush, argue that voter error, not
bias, disproportionately shrank the counted vote, Rehnquist argued that he
broke no rules, he was just following the law.
to wage politics in the US while tiptoing around racism is like sidestepping
an elephant. It's dangerous, it's not smart, and it won't work. What
suppresses the Black and minority vote suppresses the Democratic and liberal-progressive
vote. The majority of white male voters haven't polled Democratic since
1964 and only women of color create the gender gap for Gore. Yet the
unequal distribution of resources and bias that created a practically apartheid
voting system in Florida was sustained by the Democratic Party - who
approved of the process, try as they might to blame the Governor's cronies.
And Democratic pro-drug war, pro-death penalty, pro-felon disenfranchisement
policies stoked the racist atmosphere in which this election was held.
conditions are ripe for a pro-democracy movement. A moment, at least: this
is it. Some things have changed in the nation since 1964, and when the
public has heard (or seen on CSPAN) the witnesses who gave the NAACP
testimony, they have been shocked. Voter protests in Florida have built a
multi-racial coalition that is advocating the kind of electoral reform the
whole nation could get behind. Among their demands: a non-partisan
election commission, standardized voting procedures and federal
enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Add to that, the longer-term
structural changes some advocate: instant run off voting, or some form of
proportional representation, so that small parties (and minority
constituencies) could build support for their issues without throwing
elections to their foes.
public has seen the Electoral College in its worst light: for the first time,
the tyranny of a minority may contradict the popular will. Perhaps something
will come of the shared experience of disenfranchisement. But not if we
don't talk about what's at the root of it: racism. Not "the system,"
but this particular, racist one. And those who've been marginalized must
occupy the center. People of color are central to why our electoral system
is set up this way; likewise, they must be at the heart of any movement
for real democracy. We can get rid of the racism, but only if we all shove
that elephant out at once.
"The Laura Flanders Show," Monday-Friday, 9-Noon, Mountain Time 1490 KWAB and www.Radioforchange.com