Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Two newly released reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 election have been nothing short of revelatory. Both studies — one produced by researchers at Oxford University, the other by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge — describe in granular detail how the Russian government tried to sow discord and confusion among American voters. And both conclude that Russia’s campaign included a massive effort to deceive and co-opt African Americans. We now have unassailable confirmation that a foreign power sought to exploit racial tensions in the United States for its own gain.
Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the Russian government worked to sway the 2016 election, foreign election meddling has been one of our nation’s top national security concerns. But our discussions about Russian interference rarely touch on the other major threat to our elections: the resurgence of state-sponsored voter suppression in the United States. In light of these disturbing new reports, it is clear we can no longer think of foreign election meddling as a phenomenon separate from attempts to disenfranchise Americans of color. Racial injustice remains a real vulnerability in our democracy, one that foreign powers are only too willing to attack.
How should we respond? First, we have to make it easier, not harder, for Americans to vote. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, which severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, we’ve seen a resurgence of voter-suppression efforts across the nation. Congress has the power to fix the Voting Rights Act, but so far it has declined to do so. The revelations of Russia’s racial targeting should serve as a wake-up call that domestic voter suppression, in addition to being unconstitutional, effectively aids foreign attacks on our democracy. Indeed, we should take seriously the danger that domestic and foreign groups may coordinate to suppress turnout in future elections, a possibility we can begin to forestall, first and foremost, by protecting the franchise here at home. Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) has already introduced a comprehensive new voting rights bill, and Congress should swiftly act upon it in the new year.
Second, these revelations only deepen the urgency of demanding more accountability from technology companies. The New Knowledge report criticizes social media companies such as Facebook for misleading Congress about the nature of Russian interference, noting that one even denied that specific groups were targeted. This is just more evidence that Silicon Valley has yet to come to grips with the enormous influence it wields in our democracy, and the ways that foreign powers can use that influence to manipulate Americans. Congress should require greater transparency and responsibility from these corporations before the 2020 elections.
Finally, we have to accept that foreign powers seize upon these divisions because they are real — because racism remains the United States’ Achilles’ heel. Indeed, it is, and always has been, a national security vulnerability — a fundamental and easily exploitable reality of American life that belies the image and narrative of equality and justice we project and export around the world. It may be especially difficult in our era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” but we must recognize that our failure to acknowledge hard truths, especially when it comes to race, makes it easier for foreign powers to turn us against one another. Russia did not conjure out of thin air the black community’s legitimate grievances about racist policing. Nor did it invent racist and hateful conspiracy theories. Rather, Russian trolls seized upon these real problems as ready-made sources of discord. Moving forward, we need to recognize that our failure to honestly address issues of civil rights and racial justice makes all of us more susceptible to foreign interference.
This is hardly the first time our adversaries have identified race and racism as America’s great vulnerability. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently pointed to segregation and civil unrest as proof of American hypocrisy. This propaganda was sufficiently widespread, and contained enough truth, that leaders of both parties began arguing that segregation undermined the United States’ position in the Cold War, helping to ease the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, we need a similar understanding that our failure to ensure equal justice for all has grave implications for U.S. national security. The upcoming House oversight committee hearings on Russian interference and voter suppression will be critical opportunities to educate the public on the threats to our democracy, and they deserve our close attention.
But we must be careful not to reduce the struggle for racial equality into a bloodless question of national interest. Civil rights are essential to our national security, but national security cannot be the chief rationale for pursuing civil rights. After all, racial injustice is not just another chink in our armor. It is the great flaw in our character. Our adversaries know that race makes us our own worst enemy. It is past time we learn this hard truth ourselves.