Public Comment

The Political Dilemma of African Americans: From the 1960s to Now

Harry Brill
Friday August 26, 2016 - 11:48:00 AM

Consider the major differences in the political life of African Americans during the 1960s and now. Let's take the very important issue of voting rights. Among the major achievements then was the voting rights bill in 1965, which gave African Americans their long overdue right to vote. Also, suffrage has served for some as a springboard for political office. Over 40 African Americans, for example, now serve in the House of Representatives. Many others have been elected to State and local government positions. 

Although the inclination of the southern establishment to enforce the law was spotty, the gains made were substantial. And the courts not only supported the Voting Rights Law. They even strengthened it. The three branches of government were on the same page. They leaned toward building a more democratic society. 

However, in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights law. Specific states where past discrimination was egregious had been required to obtain federal approval before it altered a voting law. The court eliminated this requirement. Only a few hours after this notorious decision, Texas enacted measures that restrict African Americans from voting. Other states followed the leader soon after.  

Because African Americans and low income citizens tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates, the attempt to stack the deck has been engineered by the Republican Party. Although some of the racially discriminatory clauses have been successfully challenged in court, a substantial number of black citizens will be denied the right to cast a ballot in the November election. 

In the 1960s, despite the persistence and militancy of the civil rights movement, the major decision makers in the southern states refused to grant suffrage to African Americans. However, the federal government had broader concerns that it could not ignore. The United States was involved in a cold war with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was relentless in its efforts to turn public opinion against the United States. It understood that racism in the United States was its Achilles heel. By broadcasting to listeners in Africa, Asia, and South America, the Soviet Union continually publicized the racist practices occurring in the United States. Particularly worrisome to the State Department was the claim that the United States was also contemptuous of minorities abroad. 

Indeed, foreign diplomats who are Blacks or Asians were humiliated by the racism they experienced when setting foot in the United States. In 1964, 55 UN representatives from Africa and Asia submitted a petition asking the United Nations to relocate to another country where they would be treated as equal human beings. Undoubtedly they shared their experience with others including citizens in their own country. 

The internationally publicized racist problems in the United States made the business community very nervous. Business was concerned about protecting and expanding its market abroad and also having access to foreign resources. It did not want to unnecessarily create tensions abroad. As a result, the business establishment lobbied in favor of the Voting Rights Bill. 

Among the major corporations that lobbied for the legislation were CBS, Eli Lilly, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Walt Disney Co. and the Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The business umbrella organization, the US Chambers of Commerce, lobbied Congress as well. The civil rights veteran, John Lewis, who is an African American Democratic Party Congressman representing Georgia, remarked that he has never seen anything like it from U.S. corporations before.  

The civil rights movement certainly won major victories. But ironically, the gains it made precipitated a major assault on African Americans and their achievements. Beginning with President Nixon, the consensus in the establishment was to do what it could to frustrate any serious attempts by African Americans to recreate another formidable grass roots political movement. The brilliant black professor, Michelle Alexander, calls it "The New Jim Crow". The establishment manufactured the "Drug War" mainly to criminalize black Americans and also the antiwar left.  

In an interview with one of Nixon's former top aides, John Ehlichman of the Watergate scandal, confirmed our worse fears: “You want to know what this war was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."  

To make matters worse, Bill Clinton signed into law a very punitive crime bill that includes a federal mandate of life imprisonment for three felony convictions including of drug crimes. As a result of the racist policies of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the prison population, disproportionately blacks, exploded from several hundred thousand in the early seventies to over two million currently. As prison inmates. they are deprived of the right to vote. And almost 6 million African Americans who had been convicted of felony crimes are barred from voting when they get out of jail.  

Especially troublesome, the refusal to indict cops who unjustifiably kill blacks is tantamount to giving the police the license to kill. Take Oakland, for example. The East Bay Express reports that although blacks represent 28 percent of the city's population, 74 percent of the 90 who were killed by cops since 2000 were black. 

Many African Americans, who have been protesting the murders by police, have been building the Black Lives Matter movement. Although it doesn't replicate the 1960s Civil Rights movement, at least not yet, these morally indignant and courageous activists have been holding rallies and marches to inform the public of their concerns and to put an end to police brutality. Progressive whites must ally with this movement to make sure that they are not isolated.  

Clearly, we need to build jointly a genuinely democratic and just society so that all minorities as well as the rest of us will experience government as our democratically elected ally rather than as an enemy of the people.