Loury vs McWhorter: voter supression

With John McWhorter

Here’s part of conversation in which John McWhorter and I discuss the recent controversy over Georgia’s new voting law. There’s real disagreement between us over whether the law is aimed at keeping Black voters away from the polls or not.

Briefly, John thinks that Republicans are trying to make it more difficult for Black people to vote because Black people vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even though, John argues, the Republicans in question probably don’t harbor hatred toward Black people, the effect of the Georgia law is intended to effect Black people disproportionately. He believes that concerns about election security are insincere, mere fig leaves that cover over an attempt to suppress the Black vote.

I, on the other hand, think the law is well within the bounds of normal electoral politics. There is nothing wrong with trying to make elections as secure as possible, even if these attempts have disproportionate effects in minority communities. Those effects can be overcome, and comparing them to Jim Crow laws is a gross mischaracterization.

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LOURY: What's the purpose of a civil rights organization in today's world?

MCWHORTER: Is it protecting voting rights? 

Well that could be. 

If you think that they need protecting. Which I do at this point. I'm not sure how you feel about that at this point, but ... 

Oh, God. Okay. So it's motherhood and apple pie. What do they call it? Voter suppression. The Republicans don't want Black people to vote and the Voting Rights Act was not ... what happened? The Supreme Court held that the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as renewed, which required certain jurisdictions to get the approval of the Justice Department or a federal court before they could make changes in the administration of their elections. Jurisdictions in the South, jurisdictions where the court held that those strictures could be relaxed unless it could be demonstrated that the current situation on the ground in those jurisdictions were of such a nature as to cause there to be a concern or presumption about discrimination and access to voting.

The court required a demonstration of the empirical relevance of the general presumption that there was a threat to voting rights. And this is taken by progressives as a setback. It certainly is a weakening of the enforcement apparatus. And then the presumption that Republican state legislatures, Republican governors changing the rules, requiring ID, not standing up enough polling places, being strict about early voting, about ballot harvesting, about the placement of ballot box drop-off points, and stuff like that. And then they put rules in place.

The argument is, "You see, they're trying to keep Black people from voting." No, I'm not onboard completely with the fervor. It's the New Jim Crow, that's what Stacey Abrams is saying.

Michelle Alexander.

That's a book about mass incarceration, but I'm saying if you look at the speeches of Stacey Abrams and company about the current issue, the state of Georgia’s proposals to make changes to voting law in light of the 2020 election. The argument is, this is just Jim Crow with a suit on. Instead of a Klansman, they're wearing a suit now, and they call themselves lawmakers, but in fact all they're doing is the same thing. And I think that's a vast overstatement.

This is not a literacy test, this is not terror that's keeping people from the polling places. This is often entirely arguable questions about policy regarding the administration of the process of voting. And those policies do have different consequences. So if I require ID, I'm imposing a cost on people who don't have ID, that they have to get the ID before they can cast their ballot. There could be a demographic disparity in who does or doesn't have ID. Those costs could be more onerous for people who are poor or older or impaired in one way or another.

And so any statement that I make about the voting law can always be calculated in terms of the consequences that change will have for the racial composition of the electorate. To frame a discussion about any change in the voting law entirely in terms of the consequences for the racial composition of the electorate and to impute motives to those who want to change the law which are invidious in terms of their wanting to disenfranchise, I think is politics as usual. Gerrymandering, this is another thing. Drawing districts to protect incumbents.

So I'm not as alarmed by the fact that some changes in voting laws, like requiring ID, might have a disparate incidence in terms of adversely affecting access of African Americans to the polls. I don't regard that as a slam dunk refutation of the concern about wanting to have people present proper ID before they can cast the ballot. “There's no such thing as voter fraud.” Well, there doesn't have to be voter fraud. 

If I was locking my bicycle, and someone told me there hasn't been a bicycle stolen on the street in five years, and I still want to lock my bicycle because I want my bicycle to be secure, that's not racism to want to lock my bicycle if the people on the street are Black. I just want to lock my bicycle. Likewise, I'd say if I want it to be assured that anyone casting a ballot was certified to do so, and I asked them to present an ID, like I would if they wanted to get on an airplane or open a bank account or whatever, that's racism?

Well, in my mind—and I'll stop, I know I'm going on for a long time, John, I apologize—the easiest response to someone who wants to have a voter ID restriction is to get IDs for people who don't have IDs, because they need them anyway for life. They need them to be able to have access to all kinds of functioning, not just access to the ballot box. 

So it's political. Both the Republican legislatures and the Democrats who are objecting to any change in voting laws that they calculate might have a negative incidence on African American participation, I see it largely through a lens of partisan politics being fought out amongst other places with respect to the rules about voting.

It's a very rich issue, because very often I tend to say we are overestimating the extent to which we're expecting every American to be exquisitely sensitive to the concerns of Black people. And one piece of evidence to that effect is that so many Republican politicians are comfortable with a policy where what they're transparently trying to do ... I don't think that they're genuinely concerned with voter fraud or trying to err on the side of caution. They have figured out that practically all Black people vote Democrat and that, therefore, if they keep as many Black people from voting as possible, then it's more likely that a Republican will wind up in office.

What they're trying to do is, by hook or by crook, to create a Republican hegemony, and they'll do it by any means necessary. They don't care that what they're doing to the Black vote is in itself harmful to Black people. As far as they're concerned, "Okay, so we make it so some people can't vote." And of course, no one's getting shot, no one's being hung from a tree. But still I can see how a person might say, still, the idea here is to keep Black people from voting via, in this case, a mendacious supposed concern with all-but-nonexistent voter fraud. It's a naked Machiavellian kind of pragmatism. 

I've had discussions with people, including in the media, where they swear that what's going on now is the same thing as before. Not involving the physical violence, but it's the exact same thing. Sometimes it's Black people saying it. Sometimes it's white people saying it. What I want to know is, I always thought that the reason Black people were prevented from voting, especially in the South back in the day, was because of open, naked bigotry, the idea that Black people were subhuman and therefore had no business casting a vote.

Maybe this is what it is, maybe this is something I missed, but was the reason Dixiecrats and Democrats didn't want Black people to vote because they didn't like that most Black people back then were going to vote for Republicans? Was that all it was? Because I always thought it was, "No, monkeys shouldn't vote," and that that was the main thing, as opposed to, "No, because they're all gonna go vote for the Republicans." It seemed to me that even when there were no Republicans in the equation, still Democrats didn't want Black people to vote at all. They didn't want there to be any kind of Black power, because they didn't want Black people to rise up against the way they had always been treated by whites. 

To me, that's different. The idea that today it's the same thing doesn't work because, frankly, it isn't. What's going on today, you can call it racism in that it has a racially disparate effect, and so you can give that to today's, you know, wokesters. Okay. But back then it was done because of racist personal sentiment, I thought. Am I missing something in this? In 1895, did the bigoted Democrat Mississippian with the mustache, did he not want Black people to vote because he didn't want to give votes to the Republicans? Or did he not want Black people to vote because Black people to him were gorillas. I thought it was mostly the latter. But then again, I'm not an expert on the history of that period. Or any period. 

Well, Blacks were elected to Congress and to the United States Senate, even in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War when we got the franchise, and then that was shut down. And I'm assuming that they didn't want to be represented or governed by Black people. That was the motivation, and that did have a partisan translation, since in those days Blacks were voting Republican pretty solidly. The Democrats were the party of slavery, and then they were the party of Jim Crow racism and so forth, until relatively recently. 

But I don't know if I accept your bold claim that the person who wants to have stricter rules about absentee balloting, who doesn't want to have early voting take place a month before the election but only wants to have it a week before the election, who's worried about anybody being able to collect ballots—so-called “ballot harvesting”—and bring them to the election official on behalf of people who supposedly can't get up and come in and vote themselves but who would mark their ballot and sign, who was worried about the signature verification on ballots that are cast in absentia and who wants to make sure that there is appropriate security on those signatures, who wants to make sure—notwithstanding the relative lack of empirical evidence that the frequency of voter fraud is very high—that anybody who casts a ballot is the person who they say they are by having presented ID. 

To assume that all of those people are racist or that their goal in wanting such provisions is to suppress the Black vote, I think, is a slander on people. I'm sure there are some racists among them. I'm sure there are people who differ even in a homogenous electorate about the wisdom of having an election play out over a month rather than over a week, since events can happen. When people cast their ballots, it's too late to bring them back or worry about even the possibility that something might adversely affect the election.

I assure you that if the shoe was on the other foot, if I were in a jurisdiction where the consequence of the change in law were to negatively repress low-income, mostly white voters, and the accusation was made that the purpose for doing that was a racial animus against whites, that that would be greeted with skepticism by a lot of people. But we have that. We have gerrymandering to create majority-minority districts to enhance the likelihood that a person of color will be elected by drawing the district line so as to create a constituency in which there is a plurality or a majority of Black voters. Is that anti-white? You could say that. I don't think you'd get very far in doing so. 

I think, in other words, it's a partisan conflict. People are going to use whatever the tools are at their disposal in order to try to advance their interests. Those interests are largely political. We can make them racial if we want to. They are not necessarily racial interests. There are Democrats and Republicans. When they draw district lines every ten years, they're certainly calculating, what's the likelihood that a Democrat or a Republican gets elected?

Blacks are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, so Republican state legislatures that draw districts to try to enhance the likelihood of Republicans getting elected could be called racist. But so too could Democrat-controlled legislatures that draw lines that try to enhance the probability that Democrats and not Republicans get elected. 

Glenn, you know, you are surprising me more here than I think you have at any point in our discussions—and that includes our differing sentiments about Donald Trump—in that I have taken it as just true ... not the gerrymandering, where it definitely has what you could interpret as racist effect, but there is an interpretation of it as just the lusty, cynical actions of a party that wants to be in power.

But if we're talking about claims of widespread voter fraud, for which there seems to be no true empirical evidence, where suddenly you have a certain kind of person who's very concerned about all these picayune little regulations that they weren't before, and it seems so obvious that, one, this is not a serious enough problem to be attracting this much attention, and two, that the regulations that are being put in place are exactly those that you would use if you were thinking, "Hmm, people with less education / people who live further from the polling places, i.e., out in the sticks / people who are older are going to be less likely to make their way through these regulations and vote, and so they'll just stay home." And the idea is to do this sort of thing, especially in majority Black districts, although of course this might affect some poor and older, less-educated whites as well. 

It seems so painfully obvious that there's a certain kind of person who doesn't want Black people to vote, not because he thinks Black people are the n-word, but because he thinks that this will give Republicans more of the vote. And I've even seen one of these people. It was back in '04. I interacted with one. Very bright guy. I was just trying to talk to him about this. I said, what is the evidence of this? This was just an off the record conversation. I'm trying so hard not to say his name. You and I probably have both met him. But I was saying, you're after this, what's the evidence?

And you know, he's probably got a 200 IQ, one of these overly intelligent people. He couldn't give anything. After about half a glass of wine, I thought, yeah, they really don't have it. It's just that he doesn't want Black people to vote. And I went off about my business. I was thinking, it's not that he thinks Black people are monkeys, it's just, unfortunately, we all vote for one party and he is being a pragmatist. You don't think that there's a race angle there, even if it's not about racist animus and it's a pragmatic strategy?

I think that if all you've got is, I want to have signature verification of a certain sort before I accepted an absentee ballot, or I want to have strict limits on who can collect ballots that they did not themselves cast and then bring them to the elector to present the votes of other people. And I want limits on that. Or I want people, as I would if they were opening a bank account or getting on an airplane, to present a valid ID before I let them cast the ballot, and I'm quite prepared to help anybody and everybody get it, to assume that my motivation is racist, I think, is slanderous. I mean, it could be, of course it could be racist.

What do you mean by racist? 

Meaning I wouldn't be doing it if the electorate were white. It’s only because I think Blacks will be hurt by it. To assume that about my motivation, absent any other evidence relevant to that conclusion, I think is slanderous. Because even in an all-Black country, there will be debates about, how many weeks before the actual election date can you cast the ballot? What credentials would be presented at the ballot to have certified that you're authorized to vote? And so forth and so on.

Those are legitimate questions. And I think the idea that I have to prove the existence of widespread voter fraud, which presumes, of course, that you and I agree about how much is enough for it to be widespread. And we don't. Some people will think any voter fraud is already a compromise of the system. It doesn't have to be widespread. 

To presume that I have to demonstrate that there's widespread fraud before I lock my bicycle? ‘Cause that's what's happening. I rode my bicycle to your house. Most of the people on the street are Black. I get out and lock my bicycle. You tell me I’m only doing it because I’m a racist. I assume these people were thieves. Nobody has stolen the bicycle on the street for the last 10 years that you've been living here. And I say in response to that, I'll feel better locking my bicycle. Do you mind? I'll feel better not having widespread ballot harvesting being done by people who might have nefarious motives. Do you mind? I'll feel better having the innocuous rule of presenting a voter ID for everybody before they can cast a ballot. Do you mind? 

If you’re locking up your bike on that street, you're a racist, though. I don't think the analogy goes through. If you know no one's gonna take that bike, and yet you're sitting there looking around and putting that lock on it, you have a problem with those people.

And I don't think that's the proper analogy with this. I don't think that these Republicans don't like Black people, they just figure that they can keep enough of us not voting to get a Republican in office. But no, it's not that you're primly locking your bike on this block where nobody ever steals anything. Why would you? That's just the thing. If the chance is that small, why are you locking the bike?

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