Did black turnout exceed white turnout for the first time in history, as the Associated Press reported over the weekend, simply because a black guy was on the ballot? Look, there’s no denying Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket made a substantial difference. But Obama wasn’t the only factor driving this, and I invite conservatives to deceive themselves into thinking that this is the case. Because for all this talk about a “new” GOP out to steal minorities’ hearts, the (usually white) people doing the talking seem to forget that today’s Republican Party is doing more to stop black people from voting than George Wallace ever did.
First, let’s look over the AP findings. It’s pretty amusing, really, because this is one of those cases where the interpretation and implied lesson depends wholly on who’s writing it up. At HuffPo, the headline read “Black Voter Turnout Rate Passes Whites in 2012 Election,” which is pretty neutral and straightforward, but if anything I suppose is designed to make your average HuffPo reader think: good.
Whereas at The Daily Caller, the head was “Report: 2004 turnout numbers would have elected Romney,” which of course was designed (whether intentionally or not) to make your average Caller reader resent the march of time and its ineluctable effects on the body politic. There is also the implication in Caller-style packaging that Republicans don’t need the brown people. Just nominate someone who can crank up the “white community,” and problems solved. We’ll be hearing more, I suspect, from that faction as the months and years propel us toward 2016.
In any case. African-American turnout, the AP reported, was just slightly higher than white turnout. Now I wouldn’t deny that Obama had a lot to do with this. That’s just the way it works. Ethnic or racial groups who don’t normally have a chance to vote for one of their own for president tend to come out in pretty big numbers—Greeks in 1988, for example. So there’s basic pride. Additionally, there can be no serious question that African-Americans watched the Republicans’ barely sane thrusts and parries against Obama, the birtherism and the Kenyan socialist meme and all the rest, and thought, “What a bunch of racist loons,” thus resolving even more deeply to get to the polls.
But this went well beyond Obama. How to explain the story of the elderly African-American man in Florida, which made the rounds right after the election, who stood in line until 1 a.m., I think it was, to cast his vote? In other words, it was well after Obama had been declared the victor. He wasn’t voting just for Obama (assuming he did). He was likely also voting to say stuff it to Rick Scott and the rest of the state’s GOP, which tried to pass an incredibly regressive voting law that a federal judge threw out.
We are in agreement in our collective memory that Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, to win the white votes of the South by playing to the collective majority animosity toward blacks, was a shameful thing. Only Nixon, we think. The thug. Then, of course, at the local level, we have had what might be called the Intimidation Strategy, the anonymous handbills and fliers distributed in black and brown neighborhoods telling people they couldn’t vote if they hadn’t paid their electric bill or all their back parking tickets.
But the Southern Strategy and the Intimidation Strategy were nothing compared with what the Republican Party is doing today. Today’s effort to keep African-Americans, and to a considerable extent Latinos, from voting is not regional and subterranean; it is national, and it is official, with the weight of governors and legislators from across the country behind it. Lest you think this is going away, that 2012 represented some kind of crest, I am here to tell you that you are woefully incorrect. Ari Berman of The Nation tracks these things more closely than any other journalist I know of. Here is Berman’s list, as of a month ago, of voter-suppression laws being pushed around the country:
• Mandating a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot: Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
• Restricting vote-registration drives: Illinois, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia
• Banning Election Day voter registration: California, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska
• Requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote: Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia
• Purging the voter rolls: Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia
• Reducing early voting: Arizona, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin
• Disenfranchising ex-felons: Virginia
Do Republicans really think black and brown (but especially black) people just won’t notice all this? I suppose they must. They think that people won’t see what’s right in front of their nose. And of course, Republicans don’t actually talk to black people—well, they talk to black Republicans, but that is sort of like evangelicals talking to Jews for Jesus and thinking they’ve gauged Jewish opinion—so they have no way of knowing how disingenuous they look.
The Republican Party is thus more officially racist than it was in Nixon’s day. Back then, at least they had Jackie Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr. And at least, back then, the Republican Party did these things in code and not via the law. It was not so brazen as to think it could on the one hand be waging efforts in half the states to keep black people from voting and on the other be improving its “outreach.” The black vote will dip a bit when Obama retires, but as long as Republicans insist on these tactics, they will be doing more than they know to keep turnout high and keep hope alive.