The Supreme Court ruling that handed George W. Bush the presidency
has triggered an explosion of fury among African-Americans that
took many pundits by surprise. And many have yet to fully fathom
the depth of black America's outrage.
The intensity of the response is being fueled by a combination
of factors, but the primary bone of contention is the issue of vote
suppression. Widespread charges that Florida's black vote was systematically
suppressed, combined with the Supreme Court's ruling to stop counting
untallied votes served to remind black Americans that a hard-fought
right they supposedly received 35 years ago is still up for grabs.
Blacks' heightened sensitivity to issues of vote suppression should
their disenfranchisement was status quo until a long and bloody struggle
produced the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Anxiety about vanishing voting
rights was on full display two years ago when a false rumor sprinted
through the African-American community warning that blacks would lose
the right to vote when the Voting Rights Act expires in 2007. Black-oriented
talk radio shows and Internet chat rooms were awash in fearful projections
of our dire, voteless future.
The fearful notion that white Americans can totally disenfranchise
black Americans at a moment's notice may be irrational, but it's
a fear deeply rooted in the African-American experience. Thus, the
shenanigans in Florida struck an ominous chord in black America.
"There is a radical difference between the way whites and blacks
perceived the election," notes David Bositis, a senior political
analyst for the Joint Center
for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank
that focuses on issues of special concern to blacks. "Black voters
are very angry for the most part. In their minds, the election was
stolen by Jeb Bush, by George W. Bush and by the Supreme Court.
That sentiment is widespread, and I don't think this will be soon
The Supreme Court's focus on the equal protection clause of the
14th Amendment to the Constitution added another dimension of insult
to the controversy for African-Americans. The amendment (one of
the Reconstruction-era amendments, along with the 13th and the 15th)
was added following the Civil War to expand constitutional protection
to former slaves and their progeny. How perverse it is that the
nation's top court would now utilize a clause in this amendment
to help suppress the votes of the very citizens it was designed
to protect. That perversity was given an ironic twist by the silence
of Justice Clarence Thomas during the Supreme Court hearings. The
lone black member of the court said nothing even to acknowledge
the fear and anger of an African-American community still wounded
by a history of political exclusion.
Many commentators have questioned the Supreme Court ruling on grounds
that it was inconsistent, even contradictory, in its reasoning.
But reports have emerged that raise serious questions about the
Justices' conflicts of interest. Thomas' wife Virginia has been
head-hunting for the Bush campaign in her capacities as an employee
of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. An article
in the December 25 issue of Newsweek reports that Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor was visibly upset during an election-night party
when she heard Florida was first called for Vice President Al Gore.
The article notes that her husband said they had planned to move
back to Arizona and retire, but that she could not retire and allow
Gore to appoint a Democrat. Furthermore, two of Justice Antonin
Scalia's sons, Eugene and John, work for law firms that represented
Bush in the Florida dispute.
"The Supreme Court crowned Bush president by their politics, not
the people by their votes," the Rev. Jesse Jackson told In These
Times. "That's undemocratic on its face. But while the political
campaign is over, the civil rights struggle to protect the franchise
of our vote will continue."
Jackson, who has been a leading figure in the protest surrounding
the Florida imbroglio, is planning a series of rallies protesting
the actions of Florida election officials and the Supreme Court
to be staged across the country during Martin Luther King Day on
and throughout the following week. The protests will culminate with
a large demonstration of many groups during Bush's inaugural ceremony
on January 20.
For many reactionary commentators, like Rush Limbaugh and Bill
O'Reilly of the proudly right-wing Fox News Channel, Jackson has
become the focus of slobbering anger. Although he has long served
as the right-wing's bête noir, his post-election activities
have infuriated conservative pundits like nothing in recent years.
But Jackson is not the only villain of their story. Right-wing commentators
criticized black leadership in general for demonizing Bush.
The harshest criticism has been directed at a political ad produced
by the NAACP that recalled the
1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., who was killed when two white men
dragged him from the back of a truck until his body was torn apart.
The NAACP ad featured the voice of Byrd's daughter who said: "When
Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate-crimes legislation,
it was like my father was killed all over again." The ad was condemned
as too strong even by sympathetic Democrats, but NAACP executive
director Kweisi Mfume argued that it was an accurate reflection
of the Byrd family's feelings.
It certainly proved to be an effective tool in helping to mobilize
the black vote. Nine out of 10 African-Americans voted for Gore,
an even higher percentage than for Bill Clinton, who was enormously
popular among blacks. Even in Florida, where African-Americans make
up 13 percent of the electorate, the black vote was 16 percent of
the total in this election. Figures on black turnout were comparably
high across the country. Political analysts cite the large black
turnout for ensuring Democratic senatorial victories in Missouri,
Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan.
After this belligerent political season, black activists and political
leaders are busily preparing an agenda framed by a Bush administration.
Black Caucus, chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas),
has already declared its solidarity with those civil rights groups
demanding an investigation of vote suppression in Florida. "There
will be a far-reaching emphasis on justice in the caucus," says
Johnson spokesman Cedric Mobley, "starting with voting rights, ensuring
that every vote counts, and ensuring that we never ever have a situation
like we have now--where attempts to harass and intimidate minority
voters went unchallenged, and where antiquated voting equipment
and ballots make it impossible for people to cast legitimate votes."
Events surrounding election 2000 have energized the African-American
community and many activists see an opportunity to jump-start the
stalled but still necessary black freedom movement. With Republicans
in control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of
government, black organizers have their work cut out for them. Pundits
who are not blinded by the sweat of ideological fervor understand
that Jesse Jackson's post-election rhetoric was not just a product
of his own hyperbolic tendencies, but an accurate reflection of
black Americans' justifiable anger. He understands that African-Americans'
anger must be channeled into political challenges to GOP hegemony
in the 2002 elections. Black leadership undoubtedly will find it
difficult to maintain this emotional intensity for two years, but
the judicial coup that gave America President Bush has made the
job significantly easier.