Q&A: The Quiet Fire That Burns Democracy

Erin O. Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP

Paperwork and voting stickers sit out for voters of the Georgia primary election at the Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene in Flintstone, Georgia. 

In her impeccably timed 2016 best-seller, White Rage, historian and Emory professor Carol Anderson took readers on a jarring and illuminating journey through America’s deep history of structural racism. Her new book, One Person, No Vote, connects that historical legacy with the resurgence of voter suppression that’s capturing headlines in 2018, thanks not only to the ascendance of Trumpism, but the state-level depredations of voting-rights foes like Brian Kemp in Georgia, John Husted in Ohio, and Kris Kobach in Kansas.

This fall, I spoke with Anderson for nearly two hours about how the country has circled back to what she’s called “Jim Crow 2.0” after the voting- and civil-rights triumphs of the 1960s—and how she still finds sparks of hope for breaking the cycle. The interview has been edited for concision. 

One of the “enemies of democracy” you focus on in your book, Brian Kemp, has spent eight years suppressing black votes in Georgia and is now overseeing his own election for governor against Stacey Abrams. A blunt question to begin with: Has Kemp already rigged his own election?  

I’ll just say that if he hasn’t, it’s not for lack of trying. Kemp’s goal, like Trump’s and Kobach’s and all the others, is to silence the new majority. They’re doing it by draping voter suppression in the language of protecting the integrity of our democracy. That’s what makes this so pernicious. This kind of voter suppression is largely is hidden from public view, and when it peeks its head out, it looks like simple set of bureaucratic procedures—keeping voter rolls “‘up to date,” combating voter fraud, ensuring that those who vote at a particular precinct do live there, closing polling places that are supposedly costing more than they’re worth because of the few voters who use them. You can use these reasonable justifications to do the unreasonable. 

That language is so profound. It masks so much. You’ll see these blips come up—like the flap that broke out in August about the attempt to close seven of nine polling places in majority-black Randolph County. When it became clear which way the wind was blowing on that thing, Kemp of course says: “Oh no, that’s not what we want!”  You saw how he tried to distance himself from that. 

But think about it: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 214 polling stations had already been closed in Georgia. The research is clear that for every tenth of a mile a station is moved from a community, black turnout starts to go down. The only reason the Randolph County thing got caught is that this retired state worker [former county school superintendent Bobby Jenkins] is reading the paper, sees the notice, and he can read the government-ese. 

People ask, how does this happen without it regularly flaring up in the face of Kemp and his cohorts? It’s the way it gets cloaked in that kind of legalese. If that man hadn’t seen that notice, it’d be easy for them to say, “What’s the problem? We notified everybody.” 

Reading your new book, I kept flashing back to how President Johnson, in his famous speech urging passage of the Voting Rights Act, said: “Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.” He surely had no idea what kinds of ingenuity white supremacists would still muster after the law passed. 

It is soJim Crow, what we’re seeing. We often think about the violence, the clash on the Pettus Bridge, the murders of Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, who were working to get people registered to vote. But Jim Crow operated under the legal system. That’s what we miss. The literacy tests, the poll tax, that all had the aura of legitimacy—”We don’t want voters who don’t understand the U.S. constitution to vote, do we?” But it had the purpose of delegitimizing American citizens. 

What if they had spent that time instead thinking about how we make this democracy stronger? Imagine what a different kind of nation would we be living in right now.

Liberals, at least, seem to be waking up to the reality that we’re reliving this ugly history. But this didn’t just start happening in 2016 or 2018. Why’s it taken so long to recognize what is unfolding in front of us? 

Americans are so drawn to the flame that we miss the kindling. As a nation, we’re drawn to the spectacular. By not having this cinematic explosion on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you don’t have it. So we miss the policies. We miss the routine, mundane bureaucratic laws and rulings and findings that systematically undermine African American’s basic rights. We have the aura of election systems that work: There are campaigns, people give speeches, we have polls, we register to vote, we go to the precincts, we cast our ballots, we watch the election-night returns. And then at the end a winner is determined—it all looks like it functions. 

This is some Wizard of Oz stuff. When we we look behind the curtain, we see what’s going on. It’s the corruption of democracy. Voter suppression is that quiet fire that just burns through democracy. 

Has the shock of Trump’s election helped wake people up to that reality? 

I’ll tell you a little story. I’m walking around Atlanta the other day, with my “I’m Voting” sticker on, and this woman passing by just up and says, in this deep and fierce voice: “will.” At a coffee shop later, a woman looked at me and just started nodding, looking just as deadly serious and determined. This is a bridge too far for people who see it. The nakedness of it. The absurdity of it is profound. And these were white women. 

But it takes eternal vigilance. More coverage, first of all. That Randolph County thing, when that blew up: The victory, which was quite contingent, required a lot of mobilization, and a lot of media pressing in, going: They did what

What it requires of citizens is asking the next question, and the next one after that. Follow that train when Georgia or Texas says, “We have rampant voter fraud.” You have to ask questions instead of going, “Wow, thank you for protecting us.” You look at data like that recent Brennan Center report that showed, over the past four years, the state of Georgia has purged 10.6 percent of voters from the rolls. That is a very quiet burn. But then you realize, “Hmm, these are the people who overcame obstacles and managed to register to vote. You’ve got people on the rolls who are being kicked off!” 

And then Georgia says, when they are asked about massive purges: “We’re not purging, we’re maintaining the voter rolls, and we’re doing that by looking at people who have not had contact with the election officials.” Which means what? The only way you’re not having “contact” is not voting. But the Motor Voter law says you can’t kick folks off the rolls if they simply haven’t voted. 

So then they say: “Well, we sent them a card when we noticed they’d moved, and we never heard back, so we struck them off.” Now, there is an economic and racial disparity in terms of who sends back those cards—cards sent, mind you, to the old addresses. Who is more likely to send them back? People who own their homes. The elderly. People who don’t move a lot, like low-income people tend to do. If you map out just that one kind of disparity onto Republican and Democratic votes, you can begin to see what the intended effect will be. 

How did we circle back to this point after the civil-rights victories of the ‘60s? 

The framing for the new voter suppression comes straight from [influential conservative activist] Paul Weyrich, who laid it down at the dawn of the Reagan era, saying, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Our leverage goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s the blueprint. Sure, purging voter rolls, requiring Voter ID, that all snags some white people too. But that’s all right; it actually helps preserve that veneer of simply wanting to protect the system. 

Take Ohio: John Husted is the king of the purge. You listen to him talk about “voter fraud,” and the man is convincing. And 4 percent of white voters are knocked off—and 10 percent of black voters. It’s the same as how whites are going to get caught up in the war on drugs. Whites will get hit hard by subprime mortgage crisis. But the whole point is, blacks will get hurt worse than whites. 

After the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which had required states that discriminate in elections to “preclear” changes in voting, it seems that the new voter suppression really accelerated. 

They did have to get creative for a few decades. Under Section 5, the DOJ had blocked over 700 proposed changes to polling places alone during a short stretch before 2013. But the law was never a panacea. When Georgia first passed its Voter ID law, it was still a preclearance state. Black legislators said, “Y’all, this is racist,” but white lawmakers just rolled right over them. Georgia didn’t even try to figure out whether the law would apply equally. Which it doesn’t, in so many—again, hidden—ways. Indiana's was the first Voter ID law, went up to court first. And in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that it was fine because the state had a “compelling interest” to stop voter-impersonation fraud. Which, as you know, doesn’t exist. 

And then as you say, a few years later, you get the Shelby v. Holder ruling, and it’s Katie-bar-the-door. Texas, just two hours after Shelby, implemented SB 14 [its restrictive Voter ID law]. Alabama had passed its own law in 2011, but knew it would never get through preclearance—so they immediately put it into effect as well. They were ready to go. 

Voter ID sounds like a no-brainer to most white people, doesn’t it? 

There’s a kind of normative, common-sense element to it on the surface. You have people saying, “How hard is it to show an ID? I don’t understand. How can it be so hard to get an ID?” Many middle-class Americans have multiple IDs as a matter of course, so it seems reasonable. Unless you take the time to peer behind the curtain. 

And then you see, for example, that in Georgia, you need three separate types of documents to get your driver’s license, which allows you to vote. First, you have to prove citizenship with a birth certificate—but if you’re over 60, and you weren't born in a hospital, what do you do? The second one: You need a W-2, or your social-security card. The third tier is proof of residence, demonstrated with a bank statement or utility bill. Over 20 percent of African Americans do not have a bank account, opposed to four percent of whites. Then, think about that utility bill: African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are more likely to live in multigenerational homes. Only one person in those homes will have their name on a utility bill. That’s what I mean about asking the next question. This stuff is subtle, but it is effective.

Where did the myth of rampant “voter fraud” come from in the first place? 

That lie came out of the 2000 election. All the problems, the hang-ups in Florida, the rationale for not counting every vote, were pinned on voter-impersonation fraud. You have this being said by respectable elites. You’re hearing this from people who have Ivy League law degrees. With their aura of respectability, it sounds like a real threat. 

The framings that are used to defend the denial of voting rights and equality, they are Fox-worthy soundbites. But they cannot withstand interrogation. The language of voter fraud has permeated the American psyche. Fifty percent say it’s a serious problem for our democracy. 

But then you look further. When Alabama implemented its ID law, for instance, they specifically did not allow public-housing IDs. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP says, “Wait a minute, 71 percent of those folks in public housing are African American. And that’s the only ID that many of them have.” It’s a classic example of how, by determining the types of voter ID that can be used, you can determine who the electorate will be. 

We tend to see these new tactics as just that—something new. But your book makes it clear that we’re merely seeing updates of the same old thing. 

What we have now is the 21st-century equivalent of the Mississippi Plan of 1890 [which became the template for “redeeming” white supremacy in the post-Civil War South]. It worked on so many layers. All of them worked together, because if somebody would slip out of one, they could probably be caught by another one. 

If you just look at Voter ID, you’re missing voter-roll purges. You’re missing what polling locations do. You’re missing what Crosscheck and Exact Match do to keep people from voting. You have to see the full mosaic; that’s when you can see the full picture. 

Like the Mississippi Plan, it’s legislative evil genius. This question then was: How do we get around the 15th Amendment? And Mississippi didn’t say: "Well, dang, I guess we can’t discriminate anymore."

Are you concerned that a lot of African Americans, who do see and experience these echoes of our history, will decide that it’s simply not worth it to overcome the obstacles and vote in these midterms? 

I talk about this in the “Resistance” chapter in One Person, No Vote. If you’re black, it  really looks like the system's got you. It’s designed to demoralize the electorate, to make you believe the system is rigged and they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. 

But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It has taken eternal vigilance to beat these efforts back. But it must be done. As I’m looking at the U.S. writ large, you see it now with Latinos in the very same ways. ICE requested voting data from 44 NC counties—to help them remove them that way. This is ethnic cleansing. This is the way to create a neo-Apartheid state, to deal with the fear of becoming a minority by erasing the rights of the numerical majority. 

So where do you find the hope required to fight back?

That’s why I included a chapter on “Resistance” in the book. I talk about how, in Alabama, you saw regular folk standing up to the system and winning—not in the 1960s, last year, when black people organized and prevented Roy Moore from going to the U.S. Senate. 

To me, that is also the story of America. Think about it: The original Constitution was drafted for slaveholders by slaveholders. The electoral college, the three-fifths clause. And ultimately people started saying, “No, we hold these truths. No, no, and no.” 

I had a class right after the 2016 elections. Of course, all the kids are shell-shocked by Trump’s victory. A roomful of black students. I started by saying: “Your mayor hates you. Your city council hates you. Your school board hates you. They are figuring out how to grind you into the ground. So what are you gonna do? Because, you know what, the folks in Mississippi had to figure it out in 1950—1950!—and they did.” 

Will Georgians do the same thing this year? I know that people are fighting like hell. I also know it’s gonna be a near-run thing. The system that created this, that is comfortable closing 214 polling stations, tells us it can’t happen. Just look at what they tried to do in Sparta, in South Georgia! “We need to consolidate our polling stations,” they say, so they move the station—17 miles they moved the main African American voting station there. And then in Athens, they tried to re-route all black voters to the Sheriff’s office to vote. Hello!  

You have to take heart from the organizing and mobilizing of American citizens who have embraced democracy and said, “This is who we can be.” With abortion. Civil rights. The farmworkers’ movement. I see this battle to end voter suppression in that same frame. 

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