Civil Rights, Democrats, and the 21st Century

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Last week, a column was published entitled “Historically, Democrats are the real bigots.”  Although I take pride in my party affiliation, I don’t feel that it is my responsibility to defend the Democratic Party merely for the sake of supporting a side.  Intelligent debate is integral to our democracy, and the issue of civil rights deserve a much more prominent role in our political discourse.  Although I could write several responses to the historical issues with in last week’s piece (highlighting issues like the differences between 19th-and 21st-century political parties), I’d be missing the point as much as last week’s piece did.  In 2015, no party should attempt to claim the moral high ground on slavery, as last week’s editorial did: rather than debating who deserves the blame for mistakes centuries ago, the many civil rights issues facing our country today deserve our focus instead.

Throughout recent political history, racial issues have dogged the Republican Party.  As recently as January, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was widely criticized for a past speech to a white supremacist group (though his Republican colleagues provided tacit rebukes at best).  Some of the most effective smear campaigns within the Republican Party have been racially charged, including the insinuation that John McCain fathered a biracial child, and that Jon Huntsman’s children, adopted from Asia, were actually biologically his own. Although Republican voters seem sensitive about miscegenation, this pales in comparison to the policy stances of the two parties.

The issue of voting rights, which has recently reemerged as a prominent civil rights issue, deserves special attention.  Republicans across the country, on local and national stages, have attempted to roll back access to voting by limiting policies like same-day registration and early voting, claiming to be worried about the non-existent issue of voting fraud, although they have slipped off-message on a couple of occasions.  North Carolina GOP leader Don Yelton said that if North Carolina’s voter identification law “hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”  In Ohio, a Republican county party chair said, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine.”  (Note: He actually said “read African-American” — it was not added to this piece.)  Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said that while he was chair, his party had “political consultants and staff talking about voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.”

More important than the racially divisive rhetoric present on this issue from Republicans are the effects of these policies.  Congress’s investigative agency, the Government Accountability Office, released an October 2014 report that detailed how these laws disproportionately decrease turnout in minorities, saying that young minorities were especially affected.  A major study from Loyola University that concluded after the 2014 elections figured that over seven federal elections, the laws enacted would (on a nationwide scale) have stopped thirty-one cases of voter fraud, or about four every election.  Thirty-one votes, out of about a billion cast over that time period, represents a fraud rate of 0.0000031 percent.  Similar studies have found that these efforts on a national level could disenfranchise nearly 25 million voters, or about a million voters prevented from voting per fraud case.  Obviously, voter fraud should not be permitted, but the disproportionality of this response makes Republican intentions clear.  Imagine taking away a different right from American citizens to stop a single legal violation; quite the opposite of the “better a thousand guilty men go free than a single innocent man go to jail” that was central to our founding as a nation.  Republicans have, in an attempt to steal elections, enacted legislation that disproportionately prevents minorities, who generally vote Democrat, from taking part in perhaps the most fundamental part of our democracy.

Turning back to last week’s article, I empathize with the author and his claims of receiving “cocky sermons about how the Democratic Party is the ‘good’ party on civil rights.”  Cocky sermons (though I believe last week’s piece also undoubtedly qualifies as such) are not going to provide the solutions to the problems that face this country, and being on the receiving end of such lectures is undoubtedly challenging.  The point of raising the issue of voting rights is not to accuse the Republican Party of racism, or to lump all Republicans in with the views of those quoted in the second paragraph, but rather to highlight the importance of this issue in the present.  The fight for civil rights is not over, and these issues deserve our sincerest attention and debate.  I believe wholeheartedly, however, that the Republican Party is on the wrong side of many such issues in the 21st century, including this one.  As such, the present Democratic Party has a much better civil rights platform than their Republican counterpart; and, in comparison, absolutely deserves the distinction of being the “good” party on civil rights.

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