A decade ago, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, Our country has changed, in Shelby County v. Holder, the landmark Supreme Court decision that decimated the countrys strongest voting rights protections. Nearly two dozen states, the very places where voters needed protections, leapt into the breach to craft Jim Crow-esque laws making voting more difficult. Most of the new measures targeted election administration, but Georgia, one of the most egregious violators, and Florida scrambled to prohibit the distribution of water and snacks to voters waiting in line.
The explosion of restrictions spawned by Shelby failed to persuade a majority of United States senators to craft appropriate legislation to address the growing problem of voting rights abridged on account of race as the 15th Amendment stipulates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnells recent observation that African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans was the latest entry in this time-honored exercise of degrading Americans whose ancestors were chained up, shipped from Africa, and enslaved in Kentucky and elsewhere in these United States.
African American votes are a big problem for Republicans more interested in the votes of the Americans they reel in with bigotry, quack science, and the comedy routines that pass for civic discourse. They may be a bigger problem for McConnell and the Senates 21st-century white supremacy project now that Stephen Breyer is stepping down from the Supreme Court and one among a group of eminently qualified Black women jurists is the candidate likely to take his place.
Count on the Senate minority leader and his Democratic allies to roll out a few boulders in her path to the Supreme Court, ones that Sisyphus would appreciate. The curtain has already gone up on the defamation pageant. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) opines that any nominee will be a radical liberal with extremist views, and an Arizona Senate candidate suggests that a Black drag queen would be President Bidens nominee. Next up: critical race theory hot takes from a Senate Judiciary Committee content to skim over voting rights abuses.
More than 100 years ago, a Black man summed up the African American conundrum in the American body politic this way: He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows. On this side of Blackness, that observation still resonates.
The paths to make it possible have been laid out, but the way forward has always been strewn with perverse hurdles. For African American men, that meant fighting wars waged by a country that refused to pass anti-lynching laws (and never has), thinking, perhaps, that their wartime sacrifices would shift hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. In the conflicts before the Civil War, they sought freedom. In later wars, men came home in their fine uniforms to unemployment, harassment, and maiming or death by hanging, fists, fire, or bullets. The integration of the armed forces produced a modicum of respect and upward mobility. But even though a Black man now leads the national-security complex, he still gets a face full of verbal spittle from senators when he appears in Capitol Hill hearings.
African American votes are a big problem for Republicans more interested in the votes of the Americans they reel in with bigotry, quack science, and the comedy routines that pass for civic discourse.
For generations, families and teachers have preached education, education, and more education as a remedy for racism, understanding that knowledge powers the arc of their childrens lives. Desegregation was an early, inadequate corrective to a festering system of substandard schools tolerated in the places where Black people lived. But in 2022, instead of debating long-overdue remedies, Black students are caught in spectacles of banning books, many written by Blacks, and resistance to teaching American history that includes frank assessments of slaverys impacts on the country they live in. But many white Americans are too consumed by shuttling their precious children as far away from their fellows and the pernicious influences of their history. For Black people, being accepted as American remains the countrys great unrealized project.
When the yoke of history gets too heavy, there is the option of a venture to the less-worse, to anywhere else, to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean. The roster of the men and women who took the out is long: from W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin to Nina Simone, Randall Robinson, and Tina Turner. But most people dont have the means, so they run in place, endure and fight, or succumb to demons. For all of the gains over four centuries, Black people live life playing a simultaneous offensive-defensive game, enjoying broad grants of freedom in one of the richest countries on Earth, but always on guard, monitored and policed in every segment of life: voting, education, housing, health care, employment, walking, driving, and looking at birds.
When Mitch McConnell came to collect Januarys Black tax, the people who cannot and will not head for the exits took to their keyboards, insisting on their collective birthright through I am an American sepia-tinged pictures of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, hashtagged with #MitchPlease taunts. Some denizens of the Twitterverse complained about the bougieness of it all, but after four centuries, providing proofs of worthiness dwells deep in the collective muscle memory.
Shaken to the core, the Senate minority leader took refuge in a display of pique often found in the service of inauthentic virtue signaling. McConnell name-checked his proximity to Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnsonas well as all the Black employees he has ever hiredand asserted his unflagging commitment to civil rights, voting rights, and just plain rights. How could anyone misconstrue an inadvertently dropped one-syllable word to mean that African Americans are not American? Fortunately for McConnell, there were enough analysts happy to shrug off his slip, preferring to zero in on the easier-to-digest data: Black turnout rates.
If McConnell could not stomach a corrective to the latest affronts on voting rights, just as he could not stomach a constitutional law professor as president, as the curtain goes up on another Supreme Court nomination drama, expect the Senates 21st-century white supremacy project to devise some line of attack to muck up the confirmation of a Black woman to the high court. On this side of Blackness, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted a century ago, we know that the path to being American is a long-haul exercise. We shall overcome. But it wont be today.