Indifference To Voting Rights Betrays Our Privilege And Self-Deception (Rebekah Miles)

Current Events

The following is the final installment in a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture.  The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea.  The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”

I spent election day ferrying voters to the polls in east Texas. The toughest moments were watching as two voters who were disabled met resistance when they tried to vote without drivers’ licenses. Both of these voters had the proper documents and should have been able to vote without objection.

In one case, I accompanied a man with cognitive impairment to the polls.  When he was challenged for having no photo ID, I recited the proper forms of identification for Texas voters. Without an advocate, it is unlikely he would have been able to vote.

Later that same day I was escorting an older African American woman who ran into similar problems; when challenged for lack of photo ID, she recited the Texas voting laws. She, too, was allowed to vote, though she probably would not have been if she had not known the law.

On the way home, we drove passed the place where she had voted in previous elections. Her old polling place was next to a bus stop.  The close proximity made it possible for her and others without cars to get to the polls.  The new polling place, by contrast, was a mile from the bus stop up a long hill on a road with potholes and no sidewalk. There is no way she could have made it up that hill with her walker.   As we drove home, she cried and whispered again and again, mostly to herself, “They don’t want us to vote! They don’t want me to vote!”

Texas is just one of the states that enacted major voting restrictions in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Across the country, many states restricted voter registration drives, stiffened voter ID requirements, purged voting roles, and closed or moved polling places.  These changes disproportionally affected people of color and the poor.

Journalists have argued about whether the new voting laws helped Donald Trump win the presidency. But the point is not whether the election results were changed; the point is that U.S. citizens were effectively disenfranchised. The changes are wrong whatever the election outcome.

But, of course, a Trump administration is especially challenging on the issue of voting rights, because he and his aides have promised to increase restrictions on voting and even bragged about “voter suppression” [ i.e., dissuading certain constituencies from voting through targeted negative ads] before the election – Editor].

These recent changes in voting laws occur in the context of a long history of African-American voter suppression. Until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, southern states blocked the huge majority of Africans-Americans from registering and voting through various strategies. Soon after the 1870 passage of the 15th amendment, which gave voting rights to previously enslaved men, southern states began enacting laws to restrict African-American voting.

Between poll taxes and literacy tests, most African-Americans were disenfranchised, as were many poor whites. Over time, as various strategies proved unconstitutional or ineffective, white leaders came up with new methods for African-American disenfranchisement. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and mandated federal supervision of voting laws in states that had had discriminatory practices. With federal supervision the formal barriers were largely dismantled.

In 2013, when the Supreme Court took away federal supervision of state voting laws, many states began the familiar routine of experimenting with voting restrictions. States limited voter registration drives and closed polling places, more often in neighborhoods populated by people of color. They enacted voting requirements for a government issued photo ID, which 25% of African-American voters and 16% of Latino/Latina voters do not have, compared with 8% of white voters.

This striking difference is easy to explain.  The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license; 24% of African-Americans and 17% of Latino/as do not own a car compared to only 7% of whites. And, of course, many people with disabilities also have no driver’s license or car.) As Martin Luther King put it in his 1957 speech Give us the Ballot,  “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

When we look at the long history of voting restrictions, difficult questions confront us, not just as citizens in a democracy but also as people of faith. Foremost in my mind is this question: How could so many people of faith—both Democrats and Republicans–have enacted and allowed these voting restrictions, not only in the distant past but also in the last few years?

Theologians Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr believed that the problem was rooted in privilege and self-deception. People with privilege and power are loath to share it. And those same people have a strange way of convincing themselves that what they are doing is right. They deceive themselves.

Niebuhr wrote, “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. . . Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.”(117)

King drew on Niebuhr to highlight the way privileged groups deceive themselves into thinking that efforts to protect their own interests are actually for the common good. Because of the reluctance to share power, legal, judicial, and moral pressure is necessary.  And because the reluctance is fueled by self-deception, full justice cannot be enacted until people of privilege begin to look honestly at their self-deception and see things as they really are.

King offers this challenge:

The future will depend on the ability of white America to honestly admit that it has been unjust, that racism is deeply rooted in this country, [and] that the white backlash is nothing but a new name for an old phenomenon. . . .[It] will depend on the ability of white America to honestly face its racism and honestly respond to the demands that will not cease.

The elderly African-American voter who I accompanied to the polls was right when she said: “They don’t want us to vote!” Many in our country, consciously or unconsciously, did not want her or others like her to vote.

It’s time for U.S. citizens – whatever party, whatever faith – to admit that we have unfairly barred people from voting on the basis of ethnicity, class, and ability and have tried to cover our injustice with claims to righteousness. The only faithful response is to admit our sin and deceit and work together across lines of party, faith, and ethnicity, to protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens.

Rebekah Miles is Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology and Director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.  She is the author among other tiles of When the One You Love is Gone (Abingdon Press, 2012) and Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian, Collected Essays from 1929–1942 (Westminster John Knox, 2010), and The Bonds of Freedom: Feminist Theology and Christian Realism (Oxford University Press, 2001).  She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Arkansas Annual Conference. 

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