Op-Ed

Voting while black is to choose abuse or neglect

A few words on the difficulty of voting while black.

As we mark what would have been his 89th birthday, it seems fitting to recall that Martin Luther King spoke to that difficulty in a 1957 speech that rings relevant 61 years later: “All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters.”

As he saw it, neither party was blameless. He castigated Democrats for capitulating to the rabid racists of their Southern wing —the so-called “Dixiecrats” — and blasted Republicans for caving in to “right-wing reactionary Northerners.”

Both, he said, “have betrayed the cause of justice.

There are no more Dixiecrats and the right-wing reactionaries to whom the GOP kowtows are more likely now to be in the South and Midwest, but King’s central point remains valid. Neither party covers itself with glory where African Americans are concerned. African-American issues — police reform, job discrimination, mass incarceration — routinely go unaddressed by both.

And here, someone will demand to know how it is, if both parties share blame, black voters remain overwhelmingly loyal to one, reliably casting about 90 percent of presidential ballots for Democrats. But it isn’t hard to understand.

Imagine you have two suitors. One ignores you, often seems ashamed to be seen with you, but occasionally brings flowers. The other beats you.

If you must date one, is it any wonder you’d choose the former?

So Republicans, who pioneered the Southern strategy, opened the 1980 election praising state’s rights, demonized Willie Horton, gutted the Voting Rights Act, issued coded appeals to white racial resentment, demeaned the first African-American president, and were hit just last year by federal judges for a photo I.D. law designed with “surgical precision” to stop black North Carolinians from voting, have no standing to ask black people, “Why don’t you like us?”

The GOP’s resort to these “conniving methods” has left Democrats no meaningful competition for the black vote. Although they occasionally come bearing flowers Democrats are far too likely to ignore black issues or, at best, pay lip service to them.

And they are forever stepping over black voters while giving the high sign to whites, like a married man mouthing “call me” to another woman with his wife standing there.

Witness Democrat Doug Jones, elected to the Senate in December over that odor in a cowboy hat, Republican Roy Moore. Election postmortems showed Jones owed the upset in large part to African-American voters, women in particular. Yet days later, he was on cable news, pivoting to the right, warning he would side with Republicans on certain issues. So much for gratitude.

But one gets used to being shoved aside when voting while black.

Indeed, it says something that presidential candidates routinely spend more time discussing the concerns of 50,000 coal miners than those of 43 million black people. What it says is that African-American votes, like African-American lives, count for less.

“Give us the ballot,” demanded King in 1957. And yes, much has changed since then.

But in some sense, we’re still waiting.

Reach Leonard Pitts Jr. at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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