The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An anti-Black backlash — with no end in sight

The U.S. Capitol on Jan. 19. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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We are in the midst of an aggressive, sustained backlash against recent shows of Black political power. The Senate’s rejection of a comprehensive voting rights bill on Wednesday night both leaves in place some of the most pernicious elements of that backlash and confirms that Black political power in the United States remains subject to reversal from the nation’s White majority.

Backlashes, counter-movements and other actions that negate advancements of Black political power are nothing new. The post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution were in many ways undone by Jim Crow. Some of the advances of the 1950s and ’60s on voting rights, school integration and other issues have been gradually reduced by conservative opposition. The election of Barack Obama resulted in a Republican Party that passed voting restrictions targeting Black people and a GOP president whose rise was accelerated by suggesting that Obama's presidency was not legitimate.

From 2017 to 2020, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, there were three big examples of rising Black political power.

First, Black intellectuals who suggested racism had always been — and remained — a defining feature of American life became some of the most influential voices in left and center-left circles. This was an ascension not just of Black voices but specifically of those who told a story that challenged White Americans and the image of the United States itself — in contrast with Obama, who rose in part on a largely optimistic story about America’s White majority. The most prominent example of this dynamic was the 1619 Project, conceived by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which centered U.S. history on the arrival of the first enslaved people from Africa.

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Second, there were mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. These protests were multiracial but were led by Black Lives Matter organizers and other Black activists. Not only did they take over the streets in many cities, but also the topics they raised dominated public discussion for weeks, forcing institutions throughout the country to rethink how they treat Black Americans.

Finally, there was the 2020 election. Black Americans overwhelmingly backed Joe Biden, helping boost him to victory. Then, Black voters were the biggest racial bloc in the Georgia coalition that elected Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock, thereby ensuring Democratic control of the Senate.

But 2021 brought a series of ugly attacks on those acts of power. Immediately after the Senate runoff, Georgia Republicans adopted a law full of provisions both punishing Black voters for knocking the GOP out of power and seeking to prevent them from doing so again. Some parts of the law, such as one essentially allowing Republican officials to take over election administration in Democratic-leaning areas of the state, create real potential for Black voters in particular to have their votes discounted. Other parts, most notably a provision barring groups from giving water to people waiting in line to vote, might not have much electoral impact but are absurdly mean-spirited. It was as though Georgia Republicans were eager to communicate their contempt for Black voters.

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Other GOP-dominated states have adopted voting provisions that target Black Americans and other Democratic-leaning groups. Republican-controlled states have also passed laws intended to limit protests such as those after Floyd’s killing. And they are banning from public schools and libraries the 1619 Project and other works that center race and racism.

This backlash to Black political power is not just coming from the right. A more prominent Black left that forcefully challenges the U.S. establishment has unsettled many White moderate Democrats, too. Their response hasn’t been bans. Instead, these moderate Democrats blast prominent Black activists who call for major changes to America’s status quo for hurting the Democrats electorally, even though many of these activists don’t purport to speak for the party or even identify as Democrats. “Woke" has become a vague epithet for anyone with left-wing views on race, with “wokeness” cast as the main cause of the Democrats’ electoral problems.

“A racial reckoning that ushers in racial progress is only one type of racial reckoning,” professors Hakeem Jefferson and Victor Ray wrote recently for FiveThirtyEight. “Racial backlash is a kind of racial reckoning, too. And the racial reckoning of this moment — one characterized by White backlash to a perceived loss of power and status — seems poised to be much more consequential.”

President Biden, while speaking in Atlanta on Jan. 11, endorsed changing the Senate filibuster rule to ease passage of voting rights bills. (Video: The Washington Post)

The voting rights legislation the Senate was considering this week was not only a chance to improve the United States’ voting system and its democracy, but also for the nation’s government to clearly embrace Black Americans and forcefully rebuke Republican efforts to limit their political power.

When the Senate failed on Wednesday, it meant that Black Americans protested against racism and democratically chose the political leaders they wanted in 2020 — and were then punished for doing so. Nov. 4, 2008, and Jan. 5, 2021, were historic days of Black power; Jan. 19, 2022, was a show of how limited that power remains.

Wednesday’s vote and the events of 2021 were painful for me and other Black Americans. But I remain hopeful. I don’t see these as permanent defeats. I’m reminded of what Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told “60 Minutes” in 2020.

"I don’t know of anything in the history of Black people in this country in which I’ve read some account in which it ended with, ‘and then they gave up.’ That’s just not what we do,” Ifill said. “I know that we work for the future of our children and our grandchildren and their children. That’s our obligation. We don’t have any other choice.”

I will not give up on living in a country that respects the votes and power of Black Americans. You shouldn’t, either.