United States: Amid mass upsurge, Trump attacks Black voting rights

June 11, 2020
Black Lives Matter protest, New York City, May 31. Photos: Edward Leavy Jr

Recent polls suggest US President Donald Trump may lose the November 2020 election and the Republican Party its majority in the Senate.

Trump’s deliberate failure to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, which has deepened the economic recession (a result that caught Trump unawares) and his championing of a violent smashing of the current uprising have contributed to the poll results.

The Republicans know that, as in 2016, Trump is likely to lose the popular vote, but could win the anti-democratic Electoral College vote. Therefore, they are concentrating on winning the vote in states where results will be close.

One tactic the Republicans are using in those states where they control the government, is to curtail African Americans’ right to vote, because the great majority do not vote Republican.

Why do they think they can get away with such fraudulent tactics?

The original Constitution endorsed the enslavement of Black Africans captured and transported to the US and their descendants.

The Civil War overthrew slavery, and in the decade or so of Reconstruction that followed, certain amendments to the Constitution were adopted.

The 13th amendment abolished slave labour, except for prisoners. The 14th gave citizenship to former slaves and anyone born in the US ‒ except Native Americans, who were forced onto reservations.

The 15th amendment prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, colour or previous condition of servitude”. Former slaves and their supporters wanted all male citizens to have the right to vote, but were forced to accept the compromise of the 15th amendment.

To this day, there is no Constitutional right to vote for all citizens. Voting rights are left to the states.

In the counter-revolution beginning in 1877 that established the Jim Crow system of extreme suppression of Blacks in the former slave states in the South, voting rights for African Americans were all but eliminated. States got around the 15th amendment using all sorts of laws and regulations that made it impossible for Blacks to vote, without directly mentioning race or colour.

This was enforced by the use of state terror against Blacks and the extra-legal violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Democratic Party administered this system of segregation in the South, backed by the national Democratic Party.

The “Jim Crow” system lasted for eight decades until it was overthrown amid the radical youth and Black struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 included a provision – aimed at the “Jim Crow” states – that any new laws concerning voting rights had to be overseen by the federal government.

Nationally, the Democrats were forced to break with their Southern wing to back civil rights laws, and the Republicans stepped into the breach. What was known as the “Solid South” for the Democrats has since become the “Solid South” for the Republicans.

Since then, there has been a counter-revolution to many aspects of the gains of the ‘60s. This has gone deepest concerning the rights of Blacks, resulting in what author Michelle Alexander termed “The New Jim Crow”.

Just as the counter-revolution to the Civil War and Reconstruction didn’t reestablish slavery, the New Jim Crow didn’t reestablish segregation. Nonetheless, the national oppression of Blacks has been part of the development of American capitalism from the British colonies to the present.

The legal form of this new system of oppression, carried through by both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been mass incarceration, which disproportionally affects Blacks and Latinos.

Once released, white and Black former prisoners are treated differently. Alexander explains that how Blacks with criminal records are treated impacts the whole Black community, as a result of systemic oppression. This is reflected in continuing disparities in health care, education, employment, income, housing and police terror. This has been powerfully exposed by the current uprising of Blacks and their supporters of all colours.

Another aspect of this counter-revolution was the 2013 Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act in a five-to-four vote. (The five comprised the reactionary wing of the Court.)

The Supreme Court majority based their decision on the argument that racism was no longer a major factor in the US. This reasoning was repeated by politicians of both parties. What is happening in the streets today shows how false and disingenuous that was.

Following that decision, many new restrictions on Black voting rights have occurred in the Southern states originally named under the Voting Rights Act, and in other Republican-controlled states. These states use new laws and regulations to strike many Blacks off the voting rolls, often backed by the Supreme Court when challenged.

Faced with the possibility of losing the 2020 elections, the Republicans are now stepping up these measures to curtail the Black vote.

A May 19 New York Times report said: “The Republican Party, the Trump campaign and conservative activists are mounting an aggressive national effort to shape who gets to vote in November ‒ and whose ballots are counted.”

To achieve this, the plan, “which has gained steam in recent weeks, envisions recruiting 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious”.

Will these “volunteers” be drawn from Trump’s hard racist core of supporters? Will they include “heavies” from the violent far right, tasked to intimidate so-called “suspicious” voters ‒ in other words ‒ people with black or brown skin?

The NYT reported the Republican plan includes US$20 million to challenge lawsuits by voting rights advocates “seeking to loosen state restrictions on balloting”, which are aimed at Blacks. How will the Supreme Court rule on these cases?

Trump’s 2016 election campaign was based on open racism. Racism has marked his time in office, right up to his proposal to use the military to crush the current uprising and “dominate” the streets.

Another theme of his 2016 campaign (and his time in office) was that he was the “strongman” who could “clean out Washington” and right what was wrong with the country, by the power of his personality.

He has succeeded in whipping the Republican Party (with few exceptions) into line to support him, no matter what he does or says, with absolute loyalty. His core of supporters, among hard-right white racists (about 30–35% of the population) already give him complete loyalty.

Trump famously said he could walk down 5th Avenue in New York City, shooting whomever he wants, and his supporters would continue to back him. He repeatedly claims that, as president, “I can do whatever I want”.

When the Democrats impeached him last year (a ridiculous and futile exercise), he said that if he faced removal from office there would be violence in the streets, and that the police, the military and his armed followers would defend him and keep him in power.

Historically, in capitalist countries the police have been a fertile recruiting ground for the far right, as has the top officer caste in the military. Many commentators who whitewash the police in the US blame “a few bad apples” for police murders of Blacks. This lie is reflected in the fact that police “unions” always come to the defence of cops who commit crimes, including the murders that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

The role of the police is as an anti-worker, armed unit of the capitalist state. The history of the US labour movement demonstrates this ‒ from strike-breaking to frame-ups, murders of militant leaders and more.

Their role has always been to enforce the institutional racist oppression of Blacks. The police were first formed out of patrols to capture runaway slaves. Today, they are the first institution to put Blacks into the pipeline to prison with arrests. They use violence, including murder, to “keep a lid on” the Black community.

Many in this new movement recognise this and are demanding the police be broken up and reformed under community control.

Trump has begun to put out feelers, so that if he loses the election he will be ready to claim fraud and may not accept the results.

In the past week, armed forces generals and retired generals broke with Trump over his proposal to use the military to smash the upsurge. Why did such reactionary figures do this? The reason is the swelling power of the mass movement. This represents one victory of this movement that is already evident.

It also represents a major defeat for Trump’s authoritarian plans. If this upsurge marks the new beginning of a sustained movement, like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s ‒ and it clearly has that potential, given the understanding of the problem evinced by many of its young leaders ‒ Trump will not become “the man on the white horse”.

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