Monday, March 03, 2008

What You Won't Hear Much About

Black man being handcuffed, 1968

If you haven't noticed, it's an election season. Personally, I'm pretty bored with it, but it does offer a chance for deep contemplation about how democratic our democratic process is and the potential for social change. Did you know that there are a whole lot of Americans who won't be allowed to vote in November? Check it out:

"The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has written that bans on the voting rights of ex-felons are "the biggest hindrance to black voting since the poll tax." Up to six million citizens of voting age could be re-enfranchised if the vote were restored to all Americans with prior felony convictions. To put the idea of six million potential voters in context, the Voting Rights Act is justly considered the most effective civil rights legislation ever passed. It is estimated to have yielded voting rights for less than 5 million people of color in its entire forty-one year history .

Bans on the vote for ex-felons are rooted in historical and contemporary racism. These restrictions became popular in state law immediately after African-Americans gained the Constitutional right to vote. The number of states with laws preventing people with felony convictions from voting doubled in the years following the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave blacks access to the ballot . Then, as now, a race and class conscious criminal justice system ensured that blacks were charged and convicted of felony crimes at much higher rates than their white counter-parts.

The practice of denying the votes to ex-felons is still inextricably linked to race. States with the highest percentage of African-Americans frequently have the harshest disenfranchisement laws and those with the lowest black populations find the least need to bar felons from the polls. At the least restrictive end of the spectrum are Maine and Vermont which, respectively, have .04 and .03 percent African-American populations (compared to the national average of 12.1%) and happen to be the only two states that allow convicted felons to vote from prison." (Read the whole statement from the NAACP here)

Check out this recent piece in the New York Times as well. You should also read The Business of Racism: Private Prisons.

I encourage you to speak up about the systematic disenfranchisement of black men and women still going on at the dawn of the 21st century. That way at least, someone, somewhere will be talking about it. Here's some words for reflection from someone who did a little prison time Himself:

"Thy day of service is now come. Countless Tablets bear the testimony of the bounties vouchsafed unto thee. Arise for the triumph of My Cause, and, through the power of thine utterance, subdue the hearts of men. Thou must show forth that which will ensure the peace and the well-being of the miserable and the down-trodden. Gird up the loins of thine endeavor, that perchance thou mayest release the captive from his chains, and enable him to attain unto true liberty. Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 92)

Let's free the captives from their chains, not just these disenfranchised Americans, but the consciousness of those who advocate such practices.