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White Anxiety and Voter Suppression

Excerpts from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race (pp. 19-22)

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

Basic Books, 2017

If you’re like me you might wonder why on earth so many southern states are so unrelenting in their denial or suppression of the right to vote for African Americans? I mean, seriously—what’s behind such hostility? Why is there such a determined effort to debase a certain group of people—people whose only difference seems to be the color of their skin? As I look down my long “upper midwest” nose at my southern cousins I feel like I’m looking at a bunch of kindergarteners who just can’t seem to rise above an endless vexation that propels them to no end, without much logic or reasoning behind it.

Beverly Daniels Tatum has helped me better understand what’s behind the Voter Suppression issues that pervades the South although I have to admit that there’s still some kind of cultural thing underneath it all that I just can’t get my head around, maybe because I live in the North and have not had much exposure to the culture of the South.

Here are a few revealing excepts from her revised edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, that help explain this pernicious crusade of Voter Suppression and the White Anxiety that accompanies it. Tatum writes:

History tells us that social change is hard and often resisted. One form that resistance has taken since 2008 has been the systematic effort on the part of Republican-controlled state legislatures to reduce voter participation among communities of color, a pattern that harkens back to the days of Jim Crow. Historian Carol Anderson writes, “Barack Obama's election was a catalyst for a level of voter suppression activities that had not been seen so clearly or disturbingly in decades. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Supreme court's 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

This “Act to enforce the 15th amendment to the constitution” was designed to ensure the voting rights of historically disenfranchised racial minorities and prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against these protected groups. It outlaws literacy tests and other requirements that were historically used to keep African Americans and other disenfranchised groups from voting, especially in the South. Because of that southern history, the Act contained special provisions that required certain jurisdictions (those with a long history of voter discrimination) to seek “pre-clearance” from the US attorney general or the US district court for DC before making any changes in their election laws, allowing the federal government to determine whether there would be any discriminatory impact. In 2013, in a case involving Shelby County, Alabama (Shelby County v Holder), The Supreme Court ruled in a 5—4 decision that, given the civil rights progress that had been made since 1965, the protection of the pre-clearance rule was no longer needed and indeed now placed an unfair burden on those jurisdictions whose past misdeeds had placed them under federal oversight.

Freed from the pre-clearance requirement, state legislatures in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia lost no time in passing laws making it more difficult for people to vote. By 2014, thirteen more states had passed voter restriction statutes. Republican legislators argued that the more restrictive laws were necessary to prevent voter fraud, yet research has shown repeatedly that there have been very few instances of voter fraud in modern US elections. Rather than preventing nonexistent fraud, the impact has been to limit and/or frustrate voting among those with limited resources. For example, many states have imposed some form of voter identification laws, the most stringent of which require a government issued card with a photograph and expiration date. Someone with a current state-issued driver’s license can easily meet this requirement, yet many students, elderly people, and low-income urban residents do not have one. Obtaining and renewing such an ID requires both time and money, thus becoming a poll tax by another name. Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, the only legal recourse is to challenge these new election laws in court, proving that they had a discriminatory impact after they went into effect, but that slow process leaves many eligible voters without protection in the meantime.

The election of Barack Obama not only brought on intense voter suppression activity, it also unleashed unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy of his presidency, particularly from political Conservatives known as the Tea Party. “The fire that put many Tea Partiers into the streets in 2009 and into the voting booths in 2012 was fury at Obama himself—an opposition so deep it led many to firmly believe that Obama could not legitimately be president at all. An article of faith among Tea Partiers held that Obama was born outside the United States, and so was constitutionally barred from holding the presidency. It is of course a fact that President Obama was born in Hawaii, as documented on his birth certificate. And his significant accomplishments in his first term as President of the United States earned him his reelection in 2012. Yet for some, the idea of a Black man in the White House was just too outside their frame of reference to accept.

To the extent that the election of Barack Obama disrupted the usual narrative of White victory, it represented unpredictability, and unpredictability creates anxiety. And during the last twenty years, we have seen the level of anxiety rise in our nation. It is not just the reality that a Black man could be president of the United States that has threatened the status quo. It is also the collapse of the American economy in September 2008 and the financial threat that many felt in the waning months of George W Bush's presidency; it is the ruptured sense of security brought on by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and other, more recent attacks around the world and on American soil; it is the slow recognition that the United States might not always hold its position of prominence in the world; and perhaps especially it is the fact that White people will soon be in the numerical minority in the US. Each of these societal changes represents a challenge to a set of assumptions, deeply held, by many in our nation, and anxiety—even fear—is the result.

And how do we deal with fear? As human beings, like other animals, typically we either withdraw or attack. In the aftermath of the 2008 election, we could see evidence of both patterns. Withdrawal takes the form of “hunkering down”—pulling in and pulling away from those we feel threatened by. When we are afraid, we quickly begin to categorize people by “who is for me” and “who is against me.” We start to think and act in terms of “us” and “them.” We withdraw into our circles of safety, and we attack those who we believe are outside that circle and who pose a threat.

Such behavior can help explain why there has been a sharp rise in hate groups and in racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes since 2008. Indeed, according to a New York Times report [July 12, 2014],, America's most popular online White supremacist site, founded in 1995 by a former Klan member, saw the biggest single increase in membership in its history on November 5th, 2008, the day after President Obama was elected. Perhaps more surprisingly, 64% of the registered Stormfront users are under 30.


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