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News Analysis: Assault on voting rights

JABARI ASIM Special to the AmNews | 12/8/2011, 2:10 p.m.

A strategic campaign to deny voting rights to African-Americans and Latinos is well under way, according to a report issued Monday by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The report, "Defending Democracy," finds evidence of a coordinated movement to undo the political gains of the 2008 election and reverse the nation's half-century of voting rights progress. The block-the-vote effort, funded by wealthy conservatives, includes more than 40 different legislative proposals and involves millions of dollars. The report's sponsors say the document is intended not only to alert and inform voters but also to call them to action. In a joint statement, both groups urged their supporters to join them in a "quest to preserve and protect" voting rights for all Americans.

After Obama's thunderous victory provided a dazzling display of multicultural ballot box power, oppositional forces began working to return the electoral atmosphere to its pre-Civil Rights depths. If they succeed, the impact of voting would be drastically diminished, and corporations and their allies would gain even more freedom to operate outside the limits of government.

In this context, the block-the-vote campaign can be seen as a dry run for an entirely new form of sovereignty. The shift from citizen-powered democracy would enable the rise of a new type of political animal that the New York Times has dubbed "the policy-making billionaire." Whereas some tycoons have asserted their policy-making impulse via aggressive philanthropic projects in such areas as job training and public health initiatives, others have pointed their wallets toward schemes designed to undermine the very infrastructure of our republic.

Of the latter, the most active are David and Charles Koch, billionaire heads of Koch Industries. In addition to running the nation's largest privately held company, the Koch brothers have funneled millions into think tanks, the Tea Party and other groups animated by a virulent distaste for justice, compassion and equal opportunity.

In eloquent prose bolstered by judiciously chosen research, "Defending Democracy" urges progressive-minded Americans to act now before it's too late. Their success depends on generating sufficient momentum to overcome an opponent that is already off and running. It also requires a far-reaching plan that is both future-oriented and sensitive to the lessons of the past.

ROOTS OF REPRESSION

As the report notes, the struggle for fairness and full equality has been "characterized by expansion often followed by swift contraction." Prior to the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision appeared to settle the question of Black citizenship once and for all. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the majority, wrote that Negro equality was "incompatible with the Constitution," leaving Blacks with "no rights which a white man was bound to respect." Despite more than a century of struggle aimed at destroying the legacy of Scott, Taney's damning idea continues to resonate.

After the Civil War, attempts to dismantle the legislative advances of Reconstruction were extensive and successful, prompting W.E.B. DuBois to soberly reflect, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." During the period between Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enemies of freedom have strived to counter every significant advance with an equal and opposite push backward. Opposition to Black rights, while never the sole obsession of a particular faction or party, has been as steadfast and unrelenting as the national faith in free markets and manifest destiny.