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A Racist Elephant in Our Living Room


Laura Flanders

There’s

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.

Consider

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.

In

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.

On

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

the polls.

By

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.

For

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.

Urban,

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.

Many

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.)

As

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.)   

The

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.)

The

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.

The

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."

In

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.

After

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.

None

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.)

The

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.

In

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.)

The

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.

Trying

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.

The

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.

The

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

 

 

 

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