Commentary

Denying systemic racism exists and enacting racist policies go hand-in-hand | Jarvis DeBerry

July 16, 2021 12:18 pm

Voting Rights activists, led by U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) (C) and Chair of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), stage a protest at Hart Senate Office Building July 15, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The activists participate in a civil disobedience in response to “numerous voter restriction laws being passed in states across the country, as well as Senate Republicans’ refusal to engage meaningfully in drafting federal legislation to ensure that every American has equal access and opportunity to vote.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the Louisiana House argued this past session about whether systemic racism even exists, there was a one-on-one debate on the Senate floor between Sen. Barrow Peacock (R- Shreveport) and Sen. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) on whether people convicted of gun crimes as juveniles should have those records used against them if they’re caught in possession of a gun as young adults.

Peacock’s idea was bad on its face. As Jackson noted, the juvenile system exists so that young offenders’ records won’t haunt their adulthood. But there was another, more insidious problem.  Peacock’s bill carved out an exception for people under 24 with hunting licenses because, he said, hunting is “therapeutic and (could) help to rehabilitate people who might have done something wrong as a minor.”

Some people will immediately see the problem with that proposed exception. Others will be slower to get it, if they get it at all.

When I asked Ed Pratt, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, for the percent of White hunters versus Black hunters, he said the department doesn’t ask for that information on applications, but “If you are asking if the percentages are tremendously different, it certainly is.” He said he suspects Louisiana’s numbers mirror the country’s and then sent over 2016 numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 97% of all hunting licenses are issued to White people. 

From the floor of the Senate, Jackson, who’s Black, interpreted her White colleague’s bill this way: “We don’t want you with a gun — unless you’re hunting,” which she said, “satisfies a certain segment of the community.” Peacock’s bill didn’t go any further and, thus, didn’t become law, but the bill got far enough to demonstrate how legislation that makes no mention of race can have racially disparate impacts. The proposed bill can also help people better understand exactly how certain restrictions passed by Republican-controlled legislatures keep systemic racism alive.

For years now a registered voter in Texas has been able to use a concealed handgun permit to satisfy the state’s voter ID requirement, but not a college ID. It’s not that there aren’t any Black Texans who carry concealed weapons, but we should expect Texas’ concealed weapon population to skew more White and conservative than its population of college students who aren’t licensed to drive. 

In 2021, Republicans have been passing laws that will hurt Black people (and by extension, Democrats) at the polls and at the same time arguing that their laws are neither racist nor partisan.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Georgia after new elections law took effect. U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican from Shreveport, responded with a tweet: “This is a direct attack on the state of GA and its sovereignty—over a law that EXPANDED voting & ballot integrity.”   

Georgia’s law doesn’t expand voting; nor has Georgia had a problem with suspect ballots. 

In April, when U.S. Sen. John Kennedy challenged Stacey Abrams, former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, to name the provisions of the Georgia law she considered racist her list included provisions that shorten the federal runoff period by almost 56%, reduce the time a voter has to request and return an absentee ballot and require a person applying to vote absentee to have a form of identification they’re willing to “surrender.” It also gives counties the discretion to conduct early voting only during business hours, she said, making it impossible to access for people who can’t take off in the middle of the day.

None of those provisions say “Black people, y’all can’t vote,” but that doesn’t mean the law doesn’t disadvantage Black people at the polls. It is only fitting that the DOJ respond with litigation.

The Democrats have a voting rights bill in the U.S. House called the “For the People Act,” but in March, Louisiana’s senior senator, Bill Cassidy, tweeted: “States make their own voting laws, not the federal government. This power grab is shameful.”

Does that mean that Cassidy would have opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965? It invalidated the laws in states — including Louisiana — that kept Black people from voting. What about Johnson? His use of the word “sovereignty” is a disturbing echo of long-ago Southern Democrats and Dixiecrats who maintained that it was their right to keep Black people disenfranchised.

It’s not at all surprising that Republicans nationwide are saying systemic racism doesn’t exist even as they systematically work to suppress the Black vote. If you don’t understand how a law can be racist without mentioning race, then you won’t recognize or call out the disenfranchisement that’s happening before your eyes.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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