Wednesday, October 19, 2005

In America?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Passed in 1965, during the turbulent Black civil rights era, to paraphrase, the Voting Rights Act made it easier for people of color to vote without unnecessary conditions including literacy tests, being able to speak English, and paying a poll tax.

Parts of the bill, the stuff of substance, expire in 2007, and so, Congress will begin to debate extending those items, including requiring states with a history of large-scale racial discrimination to have federal approval before changing election laws, requiring states to make election information and assistance available in the language or languages of the non-English speakers in an election district, and prohibiting election practices that discriminate on the basis of race or English-speaking status. For an accessible (one of those things that often keeps people from understanding how political issues affect them) look at the items being discussed, click here to read MSNBC's analysis.

The extension of these items will only be for 25 years. A lot can happen in 25 years, just as much as happened in 40 years. It wasn't until 1968, when Barry Goldwater ran for President on an ultra-conservative platform, that this country really began to shift to the right. Don't let the decadent 70's and greedy 80's fool you. Things were changing while we played around. And once again, things are changing while we play around.

Is anyone else as stunned as I am that in 2005, we are still debating the value of keeping protections in place to ensure that all people can vote? In America?

I recently had the chance to guest lecture two writing classes on race. I shared the platform with my best friend, who is White. The classes were made up of mostly White students. One class was made up of mostly engineering and business students, the other of liberal arts students. The discussion was similar in both classes. I asked what their ethnic background was; mostly Italian and Irish (it was a private Catholic college, after all). My friend shared how she could walk through a store without being followed, where I couldn't; she was less likely to be pulled over while driving, I was more likely to; she could easily hail a taxi, and I routinely have Whites offer to hail taxis for me. We went on to offer concepts for them to think about, including a sociological definition of racism (race plus power equals racism, therefor White people, as the dominant race were inherently racist, even if they weren't actively racist, and Blacks could be discriminatory or predjudiced but couldn't be racist), and the classes were left with questions that became a writing assignment. The classes' assessment of our visit? The two of us were too sensitive about race.

But, in America, it is remarkable that not only did we need to create laws to provide and protect rights, but those rights have to be renewed, and they are being debated. Am I really being sensitive when Congress is debating whether or not to allow states to reinstitute a poll tax? Last week I wrote about Oprah's show on poverty in America, and her visit to a town less than two hours outside of Chicago, a town so poor it doesn't have running water. Should the mostly Black inhabitants of this town be forced to pay a poll tax so they can vote? What does that do? If forced to choose between food for your kids and casting a vote, which will win? Am I still being sensitive?

If you express your unhappiness with the government, you're branded un-American. But wasn't America founded by a group of people who were unhappy with the government they were living under? And didn't they build in the right to express that unhappiness into our laws? What kind of America have we created? And what kind of America will we end up with?


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