As a member of the most diverse Congress in U.S. history and one of the first openly gay Black members of Congress, I know that we are closer to building a true, multiracial democracy than ever before. But twice before in our nation’s history, we have tried to build a multiracial democracy. And twice before, white supremacists have devised ways to disenfranchise people of color.
But white supremacists soon got around that. If they couldn’t disenfranchise on the basis of race, they would disenfranchise people like me using proxies for race.
They required voters to pass arbitrary “literacy tests,” then denied Black citizens access to education. They required voters to pay poll taxes, then plundered Black communities. They barred people convicted of crimes from voting, then invented new crimes and found Black people guilty of them. And they killed whomever they had to in order to overthrow multiracial state governments.
These strategies led millions of Black Americans, including my grandparents, to flee the Jim Crow South in search of freedom. After North Carolina reelected George Henry White to Congress in 1898, the South would not elect another Black American to Congress until 1972, when Texas elected Barbara Jordan to the House and Georgia elected Andrew Young to the same body.
In 1965, during what many call the Second Reconstruction, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which renewed our democracy’s opposition to racial discrimination. The law enacted real protections to safeguard voting rights for Black people across the South for the first time. And it restored the Justice Department to its original primary role of ensuring that we were not systematically denied the right to vote.
But in recent years, a far-right majority on the Supreme Court has enabled white supremacists to circumvent the Voting Rights Act, striking down the strongest protections — as in Shelby County v. Holder — and weakening others.
We now find ourselves at a crossroads. For the first time in 10 years, the Democratic Party controls Congress and the White House. Building a multiracial democracy will not be easy. But if we do not act now, it may soon be impossible.
Now is the time for a Third Reconstruction — one that abolishes Jim Crow once and for all. That means making voting as easy as possible for everyone, by establishing automatic voter registration, protecting our voter rolls from purges, and ensuring universally accessible ballots for seniors, people with disabilities and anyone else who needs an accommodation. That means restoring that right to the 5.2 million people, disproportionately Black and brown, who have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
Second, we must end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. That’s the distorting system that has evolved to permit politicians to choose their voters rather than voters to choose their politicians. Congress’s power to right this wrong is beyond dispute. As even Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Supreme Court in 2013, the Constitution’s elections clause gives Congress the “authority to provide a complete code for congressional elections.” Until we end partisan gerrymandering, a declining White minority will wield it to deny communities of color the representation they deserve — packing them into safe districts to waste their votes or spreading them out to diffuse their power. Meanwhile, QAnon conspiracy theorists will continue coasting to victory in general elections after prevailing in Republican primaries. These are distortions of our democracy.
Third, we must end the pernicious power of Big Money, which converts the racial wealth gap into a political power gap. An under-told truth of our politics is that the donor class often anoints the candidates who make it on the ballot. That donor class is overwhelmingly White and conservative. And that big-money gatekeeping disproportionately excludes candidates of color, who rely more on small donations.
Public campaign financing would amplify the voices of communities of color. The For the People Act, commonly known as H.R.1 or S.1, would match every dollar donated up to $200 with $6 raised from penalties on corporations that have broken the law. A $50 donation would become a $350 donation. In New York City, a limited, small-donor matching program has already fostered more representative donors and candidates for city offices.
This transformation of our democracy will not happen overnight. But Congress can bring us closer than ever before by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — uncompromised. If we squander this opportunity, future generations will not — and should not — forgive us.