“Granted, this is not the bigotry of torches and hoods. No, this rhetorical decoupling of ‘African’ and ‘American,’ of Black people from normal human functions, represents ‘only’ the bigotry of the implicit assumption, the things some people believe without consciously knowing they do — much less interrogating why they do. For them, white is the default position, the color of generic American-ness and, truth be told, generic human-ness.” — Leonard Pitts Jr.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has done everything in his considerable power to enable the wave of racially motivated voter suppression that has swept through state legislatures since the 2020 election. He has led five filibusters against voting rights legislation this session alone. He continues to deny that voter suppression is a problem. And though there was very little doubt about the reason why it was jarring to hear him admit it so bluntly: Black Americans are not the same as “real” Americans.
“African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” McConnell blurted in response to a reporter’s question about his obstructionism on voting rights.
More than a century and a half after the 14th Amendment granted Black Americans the full rights of citizenship, many still implicitly — and explicitly — consider “American” synonymous with “white.” That’s precisely why it’s been so easy for states to pass laws that make it harder for Black and brown people to vote.
It wasn’t merely that Donald Trump lost that fueled the rage of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. It was that Black and brown votes were a major factor in that loss. Trump won a majority of white votes and for far too many, including some at the highest levels of state and federal government, those are the only votes that should count.
The implicit racism of McConnell’s phrasing aside, his statement was blatantly false. Only twice in U.S. history did the Black voting rate meet or exceed the white rate: 2008, and 2012, when President Obama was elected and reelected. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act with its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, opening the floodgate for voter suppression in states and counties previously covered by the preclearance provisions of the act.
Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.
In the 2014 midterm election, the first after Shelby, Black voter turnout lagged white turnout by almost four and a half percentage points.
Historically high Black and brown voter turnout in some jurisdictions did help swing the 2020 election, but nationally the Black rate lagged the white rate by seven percentage points.
But even if Black Americans had voted “in just as high a percentage as [white] Americans” in 2020, legislators across the county — including McConnell — are working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen in 2022 and beyond. In 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center. At least 13 bills restricting access to voting already have been pre-filed for the 2022 legislative session in four states and 152 restrictive voting bills in 18 states will carry over from 2021.
Senator McConnell knows all this. He knows that he holds the power to put a stop to it, and he refuses. We don’t need to hear him suggest that Black Americans aren’t “real” Americans to know where his loyalty lies.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.