Voting Rights and the American Historical Narrative

by Bill Lasarow

The central political battle of our time rests squarely on the protection and full extension of the franchise and the formal process of election certification, as embodied in S. 1, the For the People Act, and HR. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But if the most visible forms of this conflict are seen in the Senate’s filibuster drama, certain state legislatures’ efforts to revive the practice of nullification and interposition, and the Supreme Court’s emasculation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there is a deeper but less visible battle being waged.

 

This underlying conflict lies in how America’s historical narrative is framed for our school children. The desire on one side of this conflict is that narrative must be buffed and polished into a story of the invention of modern representative democracy, vigorous expansion in accord with our manifest destiny, and the full blossoming of freedom to produce the world’s preeminent superpower. From this perspective, to include America’s errors and flaws is to confess failure and cast the nation as evil, a burden of guilt that should not be placed on the next generation. To institutionalize such an admission has been compared to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its political re-education camps of the 1960s. Ironic, isn’t it, that the poor things’ self esteem could be compromised if they are exposed to anything less than the sparkling fresh version.

 

On the other side of the cultural and political divide is that this narrative, which was once upon a time unchallenged, is incomplete and misleading without clear recognition of the nation’s original sin of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the repression of Asian, Latin, Irish, Jewish and other immigrants, and the long, painful struggle towards genuine equality of all Americans in the eyes of the law and towards an ideal of equal opportunity. To marginalize or ignore these aspects of American history is not only a false narrative. It is to diminish the nation’s virtues and accomplishments, as well as to crimp the likelihood of our future progress.

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Alison Saar, “Pearly,” 2013, paper, foam, glue, graphite, polyester cloth, 140 x 32 x 16”. Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver

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Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens delivered the Cornerstone Speech of 1861: … its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

That these sins were once publicly regarded as moral virtues is historical fact. In his infamous Cornerstone Speech of 1861, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens declared that “… its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” To our 21st century ears, that this was fervently asserted as factual sounds downright ridiculous. And yet … there it is. The present-day inheritors of this Big Lie use their own Big Lie of “voter fraud” to explain that the vote must be “made safe.” It is no more than a euphemism for the monopolization of power by a minority of American citizens. It is nothing new, but it feels more out of place, historically, than it has previously been. And with good reason.

We are in at least the fourth phase of our history in which that minority (predominantly but not exclusively white) has sought to re-exert its political hegemony. If the intensity of its spokespeople’s aggression feels shocking, I suggest that it is neither shocking nor unexpected. The “fragility” of democracy is today frequently cited. The fact of that fragility is rooted in the millions of Americans whose personal nature is to prefer the safety of authoritarianism; and the inevitable handful willing and able to take advantage of that impulse. The goal of ensuring the universal enfranchisement of all American citizens remains elusive precisely because of our history combined with this aspect of human nature. There will be no final battle, but a recurring cultural conflict in which images and stories play as important a role as bipartisan negotiations on a Senate committee. Resolution, retrenchment and a rejoining of that conflict is as old as human, not just American history. But, as Martin Luther King noted, and President Obama was fond of reminding us, “… the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.”

The genius of the system that our Founders invented was that it serves as a mechanism, both rich and simple, that recognizes both our virtues and our vices play a role in the struggle to gradually improve our skills of self-governance that is the path to justice for all. To fail to recognize either side of the equation would be fatal to the experiment. Thus, it is unsurprising that both liberals and conservatives maintain vigilance, and an uneasy mistrust of one another, as to the intrusion of partisan political interests and ideology in the classroom. The decisions of policy and curriculum are reserved primarily for local school district trustees and staffs, with important oversight roles played by state boards of education and the federal Department of Education. Parents’ narrow interest in their own children can be suffocatingly intense, but is understandable. It is the many professionals whose task it is to maintain balance between parents and partisan elected officials. They are properly regarded as the stewards of our historical narrative. But agreement as to its substance is subject to a broader, more complex cultural consensus.

Yet, at exactly the time when nearly twenty partisan Republican majority state legislatures are attempting to decisively alter access to the ballot and the integrity and independence of election officials in certifying elections, these same legislatures are attempting to ban teaching our children about the full truth of our history. This politicization is not an accident nor is it a coincidence. The historical narrative that we pass to our children is seen by these players as very much linked to the relative universality of, or restrictions placed in the way of access to the ballot. A history free of embarrassing inconsistencies is compatible with partisan control of the outcome of elections in the name of the prevention of fraud. In either case, the “wrong” outcome is by definition “illegitimate,” which renders legislative control to ensure the “correct” outcome “moral.”

 

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David Shankbone, “Derrick Bell,” 2007, photograph.

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Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, 2019, photograph

There are today two reputable narrative frames on which a number of Republican politicians and right-wing media pundits have focused rhetorical and legislative attacks on the opposition to both streams of new laws. What this attention has done instead is to draw attention to their importance, and illuminate the intertwining of both political strands. The first is Critical Race Theory, which originated during the 1970’s and 80’s by legal scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, to explain how racial policies and attitudes of earlier generations have shaped and informed present-day institutions and, as a result, our personal outlook — whether or not we are aware of the source. While clear-eyed in its analysis that the racism of the past continues to haunt us through institutions that we both honor and depend on, its proponents have tended to be fundamentally optimistic that genuine equality is achievable. As such the theory has expanded its impact well beyond narrow matters of law, including education policy.

While nonexistent as a topic in K through 12 classrooms, Critical Race Theory has influenced the methods of improving the overall effectiveness of teaching in those classrooms. It proceeds on a moral assumption: to treat all children on an equal footing, irrespective of factors like race or gender identity, is a virtue. For example, decades ago it was not just common but nearly universal that school counselors assumed that Black students were best suited to aspire to no more than a trade or community college level education, if that. Critical Race Theory has helped broadly eradicate such presumptions from public educators’ practice, the result being not merely access to but success in systems of higher education.

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Heather McGhee, 2019, photograph. Courtesy of Meet the Press.

One key byproduct of this transition, still very much a work in progress, has been the rise in academia and the professions of many more people of color and variable gender identities. This proliferation has inspired young people’s ambition and optimism that there will be a place for them based on their personal passions and ambitions. Applying my own experience as a product of the Los Angeles public school system half a century ago, in which I was taught and came to accept as a given that nothing stood in my way except my own God-given talents and willingness to realize them, this is a mindset that I regard as the legitimate goal of not just our educational system but the American way of life. And yet I read conservative attacks on CRT that simply equates it with either Marxism or Socialism, neither of which has anything to do with it. It does, however, reflect a fear of a loss of power that has some basis, if only in the power of a cultural hegemony that for centuries privileged the abuse and denial of the very rights enjoyed, and taken in stride, by the majority of Americans.

The sheer aesthetic and moral miscalculation in such misrepresentations, which are accepted as true by millions, if still a minority of Americans, is breathtaking. The root of this lies in the assumption that one’s loss is a product of another’s gain. Thus the rise of various minorities into the higher reaches of American society signals to them not the success of the Founders original experiment, but it’s destruction. In this point of view, it produces not expanding opportunity for all Americans, but its decline among those who for so long monopolized power. In her book “The Sum of Us,” Heather McGhee breaks down this long-standing zero-sum error at length. At the core of the accusatory posture of the more extreme conservative ideologues is an assumption that today’s generational energy is fueled by a thirst for revenge, a desire to overturn the Founders’ creation. Far from it, CRT as its core is a method by which robust collaboration may take place among genuine equals.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and the creator of "The 1619 Project," which marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to America. Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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The second narrative is the more recent 1619 Project. Published by the New York Times and overseen by Nikole Hannah-Jones, it asserts that however immoral slavery was, American society has progressed towards self-redemption precisely because its victims believed in the ideals of American democracy. This was made possible, if only in part, by the institutional and popular repudiation of that most morally repugnant of systems. More recently the numerous stories associated with that previously untold parallel history have begun to be told by writers, artists and filmmakers. Creative talents such as Steve McQueen, Mark Bradford and Ta-Nehisi Coates are remarkably fluid in their ability to move from studio art to feature film and community organizing, or from long form essay writing to scripting comic books. And has anyone consolidated this history into a singular image more effectively and movingly than Alison Saar in “Pearly” (2013), a sculpture of a Black woman hanging from the ceiling, arms hanging at her sides, by gripping a long length of white aerial silk by her teeth? The 1619 Project’s Hannah-Jones was recently denied tenure at the University of North Carolina because University trustees were subjected to a campaign of partisan political influence, and in spite of the recommendation of the University committee responsible for awarding (or declining) tenure. After that initial decision was reversed under great public and internal pressure, Hannah-Jones famously declined the appointment in favor of one offered, with tenure, by Howard University. 

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Mark Bradford at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden with detail of “Pickett’s Charge,” 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.

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Steve McQueen, 2021, photograph. Courtesy of BBC.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2019, photograph. Courtesy NBC NewsWire/NBCU Photo Bank.

Public policy and legal convention once sought to permanently embed racial inequality in America’s cultural foundation. That was the intent of the long-debunked Dred Scott Decision (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The 1619 Project observes how our laws and government policies that once condemned millions to an oblivion of forced labor camps was able to reverse course. In the mid-20th century it provided the means of rectifying the very racist structures that were erected and then supported by those same institutions. Ours is a remarkable narrative made more so, not less, with a full understanding of the earliest rise of a distinctively American culture and economy — starting with the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown in the year 1619.

 

In the history that I was taught not so long ago, not only Black Americans but other racial and ethnic minorities were relegated to a bit role. The Civil War, I learned, was primarily fought over states’ rights, slavery being a secondary issue. The educational implication of both Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project is that this was an incomplete historical narrative that led to a fundamentally misleading set of conclusions. Just as equal — or any — access to the ballot was effectively denied to the majority of individual Americans until well into the 20th century, the history that I was taught reduced those victims of brutality and inequality to a footnote. But it was on their unwilling backs that the initial wave of America’s wealth was built. Far from being a plot to overturn our Constitution, these dual frames have stimulated a flowering of knowledge and creativity that has unearthed the truth of our own history. By improving our grasp of that history we all, not just Black Americans but all Americans, have been immeasurably unburdened and improved. Thus, it is not only a monumental error that partisan efforts are now being made to keep these stories out of the classroom in states where conservative lawmakers hold power, but also sadly consistent with a centuries-long strategy by which that power is retained.

 

The broad effect of that strategy on many, mostly white Americans, has been to make them feel that the impact of their vote has been unjustly diluted, even negated. With the emergence of sharing both our complete historical narrative and our access to the franchise, as one media pundit put it, the value of their vote has been unfairly reduced. Consider the logic of a belief that I have no doubt is shared by a substantial number of Americans. It’s not that such conservative, white voters have been denied the franchise; it is that the inclusion of many “new” voters counters the former monopoly of power that their vote signifies. The irony of such arguments is that they claim a moral posture that is, in both substance and logic, no more than an assertion of privilege by brute force. It seems that they want it no other way, and a battle we long thought to have drawn to an end is not. And so we find ourselves at a historic threshold once again, and that threshold is defined by two bills before Congress. The For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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