WISE Woman Lauren Carlson won second place in the Equal Justice Initiative essay scholarship contest, her essay is below, and was also featured in the Capital Gazette.
Historically, this country’s oppressors used withholding the right to vote as a means of silencing African Americans. In 1789, the 15th Amendment declared that all U.S. citizens are granted the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. White legislators began to feel threatened. They knew that the influence the black community had on politics was about to increase exponentially, so they invoked racist suffrage protocols such as the Grandfather Clause, poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and white primaries. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were prevented from voting during Reconstruction but the disenfranchisement did not end there or with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for that matter.
Although often glossed over by the media and many lawmakers, voter disenfranchisement has evolved to meld with the prison industrial complex. African Americans are treated disproportionately by the criminal “justice” system from stop and frisk to unfair treatment during arrest to forced plea deals to poor or no representation in the Courts to over discriminatory application of sentencing to over incarceration.
Poll taxes and literacy tests morphed into felon disenfranchisement. In 48 states (excluding Maine and Vermont) felons are restricted from voting in one way or another. In 14 states and Washington DC, felons lose their right to vote while incarcerated but it is automatically restored once they have completed their sentences. In 22 states, felons lose their right to vote during their period of incarceration and for a short time after, in some cases needing to pay a fine for their suffrage to be restored which they often cannot afford due to the nearly insurmountable task of getting a job with a criminal record. In the remaining 12 states, regaining the right to vote after a felony conviction can prove to be nearly impossible. Those charged not only lose their right to vote during their sentence but also require anything ranging from a Governor’s pardon to a lengthy additional waiting period to regain their right to vote. In some cases the right to vote is lost indefinitely.
Felon disenfranchisement is another way to silence minorities who are time and time again failed and targeted by the criminal justice system. In 1976, a total of 1.17 million people were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Today that number has risen to over 6.1 million. One in every forty voting age adults are disenfranchised where as one in thirteen voting age African Americans are disenfranchised. This mass of disenfranchised people have the potential to sway elections, influence legislation, and become the catalyst of tremendous change, but that potential is being squandered by lawmakers who are willing to sacrifice the rights of millions of people just to ensure the security of their position in office. The narrative of racial difference prevails in American society today, as the voices of white people are amplified and the voices of African Americans are drowned out and deliberately ignored..
This racist narrative can be changed but only if everyone, not just African Americans, comes to the table to create such change. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People all raise awareness and induce meaningful change regarding the protection of civil rights in the black community. White people often make the mistake of demonizing these groups. They do so because they feel that their position of power is being threatened. In reality, civil rights organizations are not trying to ‘take down’ white people, they are trying to build up people of color who have new perspectives and ideas that have the potential to tremendously benefit American society. This is a benefit to all of society and a constitutional right that all people are created equal. The more representation of people of color in government, non profits, corporations, education, and media, the less polarized our country will become. Of course, this will not simply happen overnight but it would be the start of positive change.
An incredibly common myth that I see shaping the way that members of my community respond to each other is that racism was ended once Barack Obama was elected President. While this was a giant milestone in American history, in no means is racial prejudice and racism eradicated. In 2012, halfway through Obama’s presidency, Alternative Press conducted a poll which yielded that 51% of Americans harbored anti-black sentiments, a 3% increase from 2008. Police brutality, racial profiling, hate crimes and speech, mass incarceration, underrepresentation, and cultural appropriation are still prevalent in our society. Recently, I was a part of a discussion in my English class regarding racial profiling. At one point, one of my African American classmates shared a heartbreaking story in which he was racially profiled in his own neighborhood. Most of the students in my class were moved by this but a select few were unphased, including the boy’s best friend who told him that he was probably just imagining things. I had never fully recognized my white privilege until that moment. When white people refuse to see the struggles of their black brothers and sisters, it creates a dangerous rhetoric that implies that racism is a non issue. This myth creates miscommunication and a lack of understanding and perpetuates the problem.
This piece of artwork by Curt Merlo has been relevant to the black community in the United States from the passage of the 15th amendment to present day. To describe the process of voting as a black person as a maze is, at times, an understatement especially during Reconstruction. During Reconstruction, not only were Freedman met with ridiculous guidelines, clauses, and requirements, but they were also met with intimidation and violence from racists at the polls. In modern day, minorities are still prevented from voting through measures such as felon disenfranchisement and voter ID laws. The artist wanted to convey truly how difficult it can be for a black person to exercise their right to vote.