Politics

02.11.14

The Jim Crow Zombie That Won’t Die

Felon disenfranchisement laws are, literally, a vestige of Jim Crow. It’s time for them to go.

Nationwide, five million Americans are barred from voting because of felony convictions. In recent years, a coalition of reformers on the left and right (including former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky), have moved to either mitigate the effects of this, or push for full repeal of these felon disenfranchisement laws.

And for good reason. As is true of most things in the criminal justice system, this is a status quo with particular harm for African Americans. Thanks to the rampant racial disparities in arrests and prosecutions, blacks—and black men in particular—bear the brunt of these policies. More than thirteen percent of black men are unable to vote because of a felony conviction, with no regards to the nature of the offense or time served.

Indeed, for reasons you can imagine, the biggest impact is felt in the states of the former Confederacy, where disenfranchisement laws are especially draconian, and several states—Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi—have lifetime voting bans.

It’s for all of this that, this morning, Attorney General Eric Holder called for states to reform or repeal felony disenfranchisement. Here’s more:

The United States is unique in the democratic world for barring people from voting in such large numbers. Mr. Holder said the laws stemmed from the late 1800s, when states tried keep blacks from voting.

“Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African-Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable,” he said.

It’s worth elaborating on this. As I wrote last year in a feature for The American Prospect, felon disenfranchisement laws come directly out of the “redemption” period of American history, after white supremacists had worked—successfully—to stop Reconstruction and push blacks back into the margins of society.

In the 1870s and 1880s, for instance, Southern states created a whole new class of crimes—like “vagrancy”—which were punished by disenfranchisement and mandatory labor. And of course, the effect of these measures was to re-enslave African Americans in everything but name.

By the turn of the century, disenfranchisement was codified in Southern state constitutions. One of the most egregious examples comes from Virginia, where then Delegate Carter Glass—the future Senator Glass of Glass-Steagall—praised felon disenfranchisement as a plan to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.”

In other words, Holder isn’t exaggerating. The felon disenfranchisement laws we have on the books are, in the most literal sense, a vestige of Jim Crow, and—with their hugely disproportionate effect on African Americans—they work as intended. It’s as if they are legislative zombies—survivors of our initial assault on apartheid—that won’t die until we strike at the head, and finish them for good.