Today's Other 'Jim Crow'

In some ways, current politics mimic the reaction against democracy at the twentieth century's turn, when Jim Crow segregation entrenched itself in the southern states.
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Recently, Michelle Alexander's brilliant legal history, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has exposed the insidious politics of today's drug laws, which have been used to lock up millions of African American and Latino boys and men, always in a "race-neutral" fashion but with extremely race-specific consequences. But there's another way in which current politics mimic the reaction against democracy at the twentieth century's turn, when Jim Crow segregation entrenched itself in the southern states.

Think about this: a fundamental right is enshrined by either constitutional amendment or Supreme Court rulings. Once such a right is guaranteed in both principle and practice, it should obtain everywhere.

Except when it doesn't. Down where most politics happens, at the local and state level, determined opponents find myriad ways of undermining that right, chipping away at it until all that remains is the merest faint shred. Indeed, those opponents meet in public, and plan how to implement their campaigns to block this fundamental right -- how to circumvent the Constitution and the Supreme Court by creating legal and physical barriers that discourage a particular class of citizens from exercising their rights.

The goal of these anti-democrats (who style themselves "conservatives," although what they are conserving is pretty ugly) is to do away with the right completely, but in the meantime, they will stigmatize it, and sharply contain its expression. By mobilizing legislative, judicial, and physical forces at the local and state levels, they can overturn basic principles of equality and comity (that a citizen of any state is a citizen of all the states, with the same "privileges and immunities" in each).

What am I talking about here? Certainly, this summary describes the most notorious step backward in American democracy: the process by which, in each of the former Confederate states between 1890 and 1907, all but a handful of black men lost the right to vote. Knowing that the Supreme Court would uphold the Fifteenth Amendment, which barred the use of "color, race, or previous condition of servitude" to limit voting, the Southern Democrats controlling those states came up with mechanisms (poll taxes, arcane "literacy" tests, "white primaries" open only to white Democrats), which the Supreme Court tolerated for decades.

From soup to nuts, this scenario also sums up the long campaign against a woman's right to control her own body, which the Court guaranteed almost forty years ago in Roe v. Wade. The anti-abortion activists have organized down in the states, inventing a host of ways to circumvent women's basic freedom: parental consent laws, mandatory sonograms, required counseling, and much more.

And just as with Jim Crow disfranchisement, beyond all these legal trimmings there is the constant threat of violent coercion. As late as 1946, the notorious Democratic Senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, issued a call to "every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls," adding that "if you don't understand what that means you are just plain dumb."

In strikingly similar ways, anti-abortion activists make women trying to enter clinics where reproductive services are offered run a gauntlet of abuse. The workers at these medical facilities are subject to constant threats, and it's an open fact in much of the country (including Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, where I teach) that it would be physically impossible to open a clinic offering abortion as an option. Ask why, and you will be told simply that "someone would bomb it." No wonder, when there have been over five thousand violent attacks on abortion providers since 1977 in the U.S. and Canada (attempted murders, death and bomb and faked "anthrax" threats, kidnappings, assaults, arson, break-ins and vandalism, acid attacks). Finally there's the toll of murdered doctors, clinic workers and guards -- David Gunn in 1993, John Britton, John Garrett, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols in 1994, Robert Sanderson and Barnett Slepian in 1998; George Tiller in 2009.

I am not alleging that everyone who lobbies or demonstrates against abortion rights is akin to an avowed "Ku Kluxer" like Senator Bilbo. That would be offensive and untrue. But the law-abiding, broadly-based anti-abortion movement has made sure that a fundamental constitutional right cannot be acted on in 97 percent of the U.S.'s non-metropolitan areas, while tolerating a level of harassment, abuse, and coercion that radically undermines the rule of law. If that doesn't resemble the campaign against black voting rights, you tell me why not. One can only hope that American women will not have to wait as long as African Americans did for binding federal enforcement of their rights.

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