I often write about the dangers of American historical amnesia. I contend the failure to teach/learn the history of racial oppression and resistance to it are major factors in its continuation. Recently, I was thunderstruck by the contrast between how South Africa and the U.S. engage the past.
Writing on the May South African presidential election in Forbes Africa, Motlabana Monnakgotla observes that “South Africans will cast their votes for the country’s sixth general elections since the dawn of democracy in 1994.” Monnakgotla explicitly acknowledges that South Africa was not a democracy until all its adult citizens were allowed to vote.
Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) once opined that you can’t be “a little bit pregnant; you either are or are not.” It’s the same with democracy. A society either is or isn’t democratic. Following Monnakgotla’s historical example and Al-Amin’s logic, the U.S. could not be a democratic society before President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) on Aug. 6, 1965, or 54 years ago. However, achieving political democracy cannot occur until the majority of voting age African-American, Latinx and indigenous people have unfettered access to the franchise.
The Founding Fathers’ flawed notion of democracy was enshrined in the 1789 Constitution. The Founding Fathers believed non-landowners could not be trusted to make rational decisions. James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, observed, “Viewing the subject in its merits alone, the freeholders (that is, landowners) of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty.” Therefore, the Founding Fathers excluded non-property-owners from the polity.
The march away from class, gender and racial/ethnic tyranny is marked with many inflection points. The struggle for political democracy did not proceed in a linear fashion. It progressed through fits and starts and advances and retreats. It was propelled largely by those who were excluded from the political process. Until the 1830s or so, only about 6 percent of the adult residents of the U.S. could vote. Universal white male suffrage remains a goal even after North Carolina eliminates property qualifications for voting in 1856.
The next two high points in the struggle to democratize the U.S. polity concern race and gender.
The first is the adoption of the 15th Amendment on March 30, 1870. It repealed federal and state laws that prohibited citizens from voting due to “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” but not gender. African-American men gained the franchise but not black women.
The second was prompted by the women’s suffrage movement, more than 50 years later. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the ballot, stating that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged ... on the account of sex.”
Yet, during the same period, Japanese and Asian Indians were denied citizenship, thereby deprived the franchise.
It was not until the post-World War II era that the darker peoples began acquiring voting rights. U.S. citizenship was imposed upon Native Americans in 1924, but many states prevented them from voting until 1947. The Magnuson Act (1943) nullified the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), making it possible for them to become U.S. citizens, and in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act extended citizenship and the franchise to all people of Asian ancestry.
The VRA granted a majority of African-Americans and Latinx persons the franchise. Yet obstacles undermining Latinx electoral participation were not drastically reduced until 1975, when amendments to the VRA required ballots be printed in languages other than English, if another language group constituted 5 percent of a jurisdiction’s population.
The breadth of contemporary voter suppression laws challenges the idea that the U.S. is currently a democratic society.
The actual history of U.S. voting rights contradicts the myth that the U.S. was born a democratic republic. At its inception, the U.S. was a white nationalist society governed by a pale propertied elite. Moreover, the most valuable properties in the settler colony were land stolen from the indigenous people through force or fraud and the labor of enslaved Africans. These truths should humble Americans. Knowledge of this history should produce a sense of humility and a less aggressive extolling of racist nonsense like American exceptionalism.
Unfortunately, the kind of candor exhibited by Monnakgotla is not likely in the U.S. American journalists and pundits recently praised one of the most contradictory speeches on record. The press completely ignored the racist presuppositions underpinning Joe Biden’s shallow critique of Trump’s racist politics. In an amazing display of idiocy, Biden condemns Trump’s racism by appealing to the racist doctrine of American exceptionalism!
Not only does Biden not understand that American exceptionalism is a myth, he also doesn’t get that it cannot be delinked from the white supremacist dogma of “Manifest Destiny.” Our brief chronicling of the history of voting rights demonstrates the long arduous path toward an as yet unachieved democracy. The reactionary fiction that a racist slaveholding settler colony represents the high point of human political evolution would be laughable, if so, many Americans did not believe it.
It is historical amnesia that allows politicians like Trump and Biden to persist in falsifying U.S. history. Hopefully, we will soon develop the courage to face the reality of our past.