The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.

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2 comments on “The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

  1. Andy Hall says:

    The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant.

    That pretty well sums it up, whether we’re talking about the 19th century or the 21st. The point is always to make it difficult or impossible for the “wrong” sort of people to vote.

    A long while back, around the time the League of the South changed its Facebook group to “closed” and slithered off into the shadows, they were having a rollicking discussion about how best to limit the voting franchise once they had achieved their idea of a “free South.” Several expressed the view that things really went off the rails in this country with the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. Other ideas being kicked around included requiring multi-generational residency in a district, and that good ol’ standby, property ownership. I wonder if they ever settled on something.

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