Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
By Joshua F.J. Inwood | Pennsylvania State University
The United States is in the midst of an unfolding crisis of democracy. This crisis threatens the hard-fought victories of the civil rights movement and U.S. democratic practice. The 2018 election laid bare a range of efforts that threaten U.S. citizens’ ability to elect representatives in state and federal governments that reflect their interests and needs. These measures, including gerrymandered districts as well as voter disenfranchisement efforts that disproportionately target minority populations, are part of a more significant effort to restrict the right to vote by many in the Republican Party.
While white politicians have systematically worked to disenfranchise minority populations throughout the history of the United States, with the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the 5 conservative justices ruled that states with a history of discriminating against minority voters no longer needed to get federal permission to change their voting rules, gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Following this ruling Republican lawmakers enacted new voting restrictions that target minority populations making it more difficult for African Americans and Latinos to vote or be represented in Congress and state houses.
Perhaps nowhere have these efforts born more fruit than during the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia where Secretary of State Brian Kemp beat Representative Stacy Abrams in a tightly contested election. Harkening back to efforts during the Reconstruction Era to disenfranchise newly freed African American enslaved peoples, Kemp, who as Secretary of State in Georgia oversaw the election process, undermined the integrity of the election in Georgia through a concerted effort that made it harder for poor and African American citizens in the state to vote.
This included using an “exact match” process in which voter information that compares information to Social Security or state issued I.D. has to exactly match. If there are inconsistencies, misspelled names or missing hyphens in names for example, an application is held back, and the applicant must return to correct the information. The Associated Press found that over 53,000 voter registrations were held back and that 70% of these were from African Americans. Also, in the years running up to the election, Vox reports that Kemp purged over 670,000 people from the voting roles through often controversial techniques and processes. Finally, and perhaps most egregiously officials in Georgia removed 40 African Americans from a bus who were heading to an early voting event and going to cast ballots.
Critically, the efforts by Kemp and Georgia officials were made possible when the Supreme Court invalidated section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County. However, to see the State of Georgia in isolation, or to not place what happened in Georgia into a broader historical geography, misses the contours of how a range of race connected practices impacts U.S. democracy. This includes long histories of voter intimidation and the systematic disenfranchisement of vast swaths of the U.S. electorate.
Given the broad-based assault on democracy and the erosion of democratic practice, I argue it is time to reimagine democratic praxis to address the erosion of voting rights through a broader project that addresses the underlying racism of U.S. electoral politics. While there are a variety of proposals to address inequities in U.S. democratic practice, a nationwide truth commission that would address not only the historical legacies of racism and U.S. democracy, but also focus on contemporary injustices, has the potential to create the political conditions necessary to effect a more perfect union.
Currently, the United States is in the midst of a "truth moment" in which at least eighteen communities are using truth commissions to address inequalities in their communities. While long associated with international justice initiatives and most famously in South Africa, grassroots organizations in the United States have been turning towards truth processes in communities to address inequality and racial tensions. Given the contemporary political climate where local, state and federal official may be unwilling or unable to engage in these kinds of processes, these commissions are important organizing opportunities for communities and organizations that want to address structural inequality in the United States.
The idea of truth commissions is increasingly an accepted guiding principle when trying to deal with repressive political situations. Although flexible and geographically contextualized, truth commissions focus on “politically targeted repression that was used as a means to maintain or obtain power and weaken political opponents,” as Priscilla Hayner described in her 2002 book Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. While the state or other governmental organizations often sanction the international process, in the U.S. these processes are grassroots driven. In many communities burdened by injustice, the same political structure is in place that gave rise to inequality in the first place. As a result, in the U.S. truth processes are focused on building the truth from the bottom up. This difference often makes U.S.-based truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) movements an essential opportunity for political and community organizing that can ultimately begin transforming communities. Grassroots supporters of truth commissions try to get local citizens to explore the underlying roots of community tensions and focus on needed policy reforms.
Perhaps most important of all, truth processes in the United States focused around voting rights and a broader emphasis around gerrymandering has the potential to build grassroots political capacity to enact needed reforms. A truth commission devoted to exploring U.S. democracy and voting rights could strengthen political capacities that would create a political context in which much needed electoral reforms could take place and which would expand the right to vote and protect many of the hard-fought victories of the U.S. civil rights era. The reality is that the present crisis moment for U.S. democracy demands a more significant and more sustained examination of U.S. democracy and the way racism curtails a more free and full expression of the peoples' will.
Such a commission could be local in scope, focused on the realities of individual states, or national in which the broader and national history of racism and its impact on American democracy would and could be addressed. Importantly and because of the grassroots nature of U.S. truth commissions, a commission focused on voting rights would necessarily be independent from political parties who have a stake in preserving the current electoral process and in many cases sustain and promote the very structures of inequality that allow racism to take place in the first place. Finally, by building upon already existing grassroots capacities and activist knowledge, a U.S.-based truth commission focused around democracy has broad potential to catalyze disparate local movements into a national coalition that could also build the capacities of progressive political movements and which could begin a broader and much-needed effort to address structural inequality.