According to Thernstrom’s recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, disenfranchisement of African Americans is “a closed chapter in American history.” After all, impediments to black voting have all but disappeared and civil rights groups are just habitually pessimistic, fighting a battle that has already been won, she claims.
Turns out Thernstrom has a healthy case of civil rights revisionism. How could the civil rights movement be finished when legal barriers still keep hundreds of thousands, even millions, of African Americans from the polls?
This November brand new obstacles to voting will be in place that will have the same effect as Jim Crow laws: disenfranchising African Americans. As Andrew Hacker points out this week in the New York Review of Books, voter ID laws, voter purges and felony disenfranchisement are now the most effective road blocks to voting. And they’re keeping huge numbers of African Americans from the ballot box.
Felony disenfranchisement laws are a prime example. Laws restricting the voting rights of persons with felony convictions exist in 48 out of 50 states. As we note in our report, Restoring the Right to Vote, because of these laws, over 5.3 million American citizens will not vote in the November election, 4 million of whom them live in our communities. A startling 13% of black men nationwide have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction. In eight states, more than 15% of African Americans can’t vote due to a conviction, and three of these states disenfranchise more than 20% of the African-American voting age population.
In fact, restoring voting rights to people released from prison is an important reversal in a long history of racial discrimination. Felony disenfranchisement laws spread as part of a larger backlash against the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments, which ended slavery and prohibited discrimination in voting. This backlash achieved its intended result: the removal of large segments of the African-American population from the voting rolls, in some cases for life. That’s why changing felony disenfranchisement laws must be the next important step in an ongoing civil rights movement.
Thernstrom’s misguided belief that the voting rights war has been won is echoed across the mainstream media. Pundits see Obama’s candidacy as proof of a job well done. To be sure, our county has made incredible gains for voting rights in the 45 years since Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the voting rights chapter is not closed, and civil rights leaders won’t stop until the work is done.