In an excellent op-ed in the NY Times the other day, entitled If It’s Not Jim Crow, What Is It? Jamelle Bouie offers an insightful treatment of the old Jim Crow voting laws, which were always crafted with a certain subtle shading (to avoid the federal punishments for depriving people of the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude). Not one of these Jim Crow voting laws were framed in terms of race, political party or any other discriminatory intent. Had they been, they would not have survived judicial scrutiny, even by outright racist judges.
Here’s the opening section of Bouie’s analysis:
The laws that disenfranchised Black Americans in the South and established Jim Crow did not actually say they were disenfranchising Black Americans and creating a one-party racist state.
I raise this because of a debate among politicians and partisans on whether Georgia’s new election law — rushed through last month by the state’s Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican — is a throwback to the Jim Crow restrictions of the 20th century.
Democrats say yes. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end,” President Biden said in a statement. Republicans and conservative media personalities say no. “You know what voter suppression is?” Ben Shapiro said on his very popular podcast. “Voter suppression is when you don’t get to vote.”
The problem with the “no” argument here is that it mistakes both the nature and the operation of Jim Crow voting laws. There was no statute that said, “Black people cannot vote.” Instead, Southern lawmakers spun a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate. It is true that the “yes” argument of President Biden and other Democrats overstates similarities and greatly understates key differences — chief among them the violence that undergirded the Jim Crow racial order. But the “no” argument of conservatives and Republicans asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election.
and, in describing the seeming subtle nature of many of these restrictions, Bouie points out that
Between the 15th Amendment, which prohibited overt discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and the 14th Amendment, which allowed Congress to slash the representation of states that disenfranchised adult males for any reason other than crime or rebellion, Southern lawmakers could not just write Black voters out of the electorate. “The disenfranchisers were forced to contrive devious means to accomplish their purposes,” Kousser writes.
And devious, while still “in-your-fucking face”, this Georgia voter suppression law is, whatever else one might want to say about a law that fixes a problem that never existed, based on an electoral loss that can only be prevented by immediately changing the laws of the state.