Blair Kelley

Is Voter Suppression Recreating Segregation?

Air Date: April 25, 2022

North Carolina State historian Blair Kelley discusses the present and historical conditions of segregation in the United States.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Blair Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and professor of history at North Carolina State University. Blair Kelley is the author of “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship.” And she’s currently at work on a new book “Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class.” Welcome Blair. Thank you so much for joining me today.


KELLEY: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: I was hoping you could share with our viewers the research you’re doing right now for the new book. What are you working on right now?


KELLEY: Well, I’m working on “Black Folk,” as you mentioned. It’s a history of the black working class that’s grounded in stories of my family and the stories of other families. So using oral histories and census documents and research, I’m giving a close look at the experience of what it meant to be the black working class, historically. Both what they faced, but also what they had, the resources that were present, even in spite of the challenges that they faced. You know, we know there are tremendous inequities that African Americans faced coming out of the experience of enslavement. And yet, this book focuses on the resources that they had within communities, the knowledge and skill that they had as workers and the power that they had in their collectivity.


HEFFNER: One of the things you’re focused on is economic rights, and we know that segregation laws, you know, that you study intently, one of the things that they did was economic subjugation, marginalization, that you know, was decades, if not, you know centuries in the making. But what strikes you, being a historian of segregation and segregation laws, about the current landscape of economics that sort of links directly to today, those practices of segregation and those laws that were on the books for many, many years?


KELLEY: So it’s important for us to remember that segregation was designed to replicate the control of enslavement. As African Americans are moving away from rural settings, away from the places in which they had been enslaved and into cities, there was a lack of control by white elites. And so segregation laws were intended to dictate what spaces they could go to, where they could live, what jobs they could hold and to replicate those systems of control on a mass scale. And while we’ve gotten rid of all the segregation laws that say you can’t sit at a lunch counter and have a cheeseburger, or you can’t come and sit and have a cup of coffee in a diner, none of those legally are still standing. However, we know the residue of those generations of separation and inequality still live with us. Many people still live in communities that are majority of one race or the other. Many of us are still suffering from the intergenerational gap that was created by preventing black people from having full access to education, to jobs, to building wealth, the devaluation of their homes and their land, also undercut their wealth. So as they make choices in the job market, those choices don’t look the same and they aren’t reflected. They don’t have the ability to risk-take as much as someone would if they had an inheritance. And so we know that black workers of all classes are more dependent on their income to support them on a monthly basis. And so that degree to which they don’t have a flexibility, that they are dependent on wage labor is much greater statistically.


And so the kinds of things that we see, I, you know, I’m celebrating seeing Amazon workers led by African American activists really push the question of unionization in work sites like that. That’s such a tremendous and important site of change and in equality. And we know historically that black populations benefit from union membership, that union membership has often led to more middle class, more stable lifestyles, intergenerationally. So the first unionized spaces, the Pullman porters, which I write about it in “Black Folk,” for example, the postal workers that I write about in “Black Folk,” those jobs provided middle class stability for generations of African Americans for the first time. And that was through that activism. And so it’s a wonderful thing to see continued activism be at play today.


HEFFNER: One of the things that was recognized in the historiographical community, in the reawakening of civil rights and the attention paid to civil rights after George Floyd’s murder was once again, revisiting reconstruction and the civil war era, basically understanding that there was this economic enslavement that, you know, whether it was in sharecropping or ultimately in the segregated systems that you describe, that that perpetuated inequities for so long. And you’re pointing out that remain to this day. During this period of over a year now, you know, we’re coming on, you know, two years of reflecting on what is this next reconstruction. Or, you know, whether you want to call it the third reconstruction or the third civil rights movement, unionization is part of that. But what else is part of that to your mind?


KELLEY: It been a really stirring time to think about what, where we are and what could be changed to make things equitable and better. And we have so many voices at the fore that I think are tremendously important. Many people are pushing for policing reform. We know that the problems with police that African American communities, particularly urban communities, but also rural ones, have suffered, have been tremendous and intergenerational. When I look at the people who are migrating to cities in the 1920s and thirties and forties, they’re talking about the brutality of the police against their communities then. The assumptions that are made about their presence and how corrosive it was. And so I know that there are so many voices at the fore of pushing forward reform, pushing for abolition, pushing for rethinking of the ways in which we govern community that are quite broad and interesting and such an important conversation for all of us to be engaged in, really great thinkers around those questions about how we assume we want to govern if we’re thinking fresh about those questions I’m also intrigued by the great resignation of the COVID moment of people who are calling into question work culture and the corrosive nature of that work on people that we call essential workers, the folks who happened to do the jobs that they could not go home and sit on a zoom to do. But that we all needed in orders for our society to continue to function. I hope that there is a rethinking of protecting their health, protecting their security, protecting their ability to make a solid living doing those jobs that we find essential. If someone is essential, why are they so lowly paid? Why are we not rethinking a minimum wage at this point? We were pushing for $15 an or a long time ago. That seems well under what it should be today. So I hope that those questions about what is a living wage, what is a wage in which people can make progress for their families for their children. And also, I think questions of healthcare and support for one another, support for raising our children and educating them, in early childhood education, elder care for so many communities. These things are not experienced equally by particularly lower wage workers who are facing real struggles and figuring out those questions. And we atomize people to say, you know, we know the answer. And what I learned in researching my book is that the collectivity that black people employ to answer tough questions might be something that we can mirror in our policies. How do we think about sharing these burdens that individuals are experiencing if they don’t aren’t well resourced by society?


HEFFNER: When you focus on that collectivity, unionization is something that requires, it really necessitates that kind of grassroots organizing. But you point out the fact that the Affordable Care Act while it accomplishes things, we increasingly see the, what was lacking in the passage of that legislation. And so you know, you can only contemplate what healthcare options might exist in future legislation. In some communities, there seems to be the recognition that the Affordable Care Act was not a sufficient answer to the healthcare crisis and inequities, but there really isn’t much movement, even at this potentially late stage of the pandemic in, you know, changing what are segregated health systems. And I wonder how you approach that in particular, you know, we’ve talked about the labor issue, but segregated health systems, how should we be thinking about them today?


KELLEY: So the closing chapters of my project really focus on the burden of health that that’s intergenerational. I talk about my grandmother’s family, who in the course of their migration, so many of them suffered from TB and died. They hadn’t, they were from rural places. They hadn’t been exposed to the pathogen as young people, which would’ve provided them with some adult immunity. And instead as they migrated, they passed away. I believe it is like five or six people in that part of my grandmother’s family who died. And so even as we remember the power that they had, they paid tremendous costs, The vulnerability of their health, the vulnerability of their communities as poor people, as working people who had to continue to work, even as they face health challenges, and even as they lost loved ones. It’s such an important thing for us to remember about a black working class today. We know that black people suffer disproportionately in part because they were those essential workers in the COVID crisis. And we aren’t thinking about the cost that losing a loved one or having a loved one debilitated by illness might really have on them. We are covering the basics right now. And we are barely covering those. Our healthcare systems are overwhelmed. Many of the essential workers that I’m talking about, are healthcare workers themselves. And we are not thinking about what it looks like inside of people’s households. What, what it would take for them to begin to rebuild and remake something much more just. And so I mourn that we are not talking about the people that we lost and the suffering and that the families are carrying. And if you aren’t well resourced, if you couldn’t stay home, if you are an essential worker missing those family members, missing those connections, having your community eroded in that those ways is really devastating. And so I hope that we begin to have a much more personal conversation almost more family by family, understanding of the burden of this particularly striking and historical moment.


HEFFNER: Blair, you are based in North Carolina at NC State. That is one of the ground zeros of voting rights and where suppression has gone on steroids. And we know that for any representation of minority communities or even majority communities that have been denied electoral representation, in order for that to happen, voting on elections, whether that’s referenda, initiatives or, you know, your local county executive, your congressperson, your president. If you can’t participate in the electoral process, you’re likely not going to be able to make changes, you know, beyond the Affordable Care Act, for instance. And so when you think of voter suppression today and the movement, not just in North Carolina, but in many state legislatures, to make it more challenging, if not impossible for people of color to vote, for college age folks to vote, first time voters, do you think of that as recreating segregation, basically trying to recreate through those laws, the conditions of segregation?


KELLEY: In many ways I think that is unfortunately very true. I think our misunderstanding of what disfranchisement in the era of Jim Crow looked like, allow us to see the passage of new laws that are discouraging, suppressive, limiting. Those were the kinds of laws that, that were put into place after the close of reconstruction. And before the advent of, you know, the rewriting of state constitutions, that wholly disfranchised people. That sort of middling period of voter suppression was what really made voting so difficult and eroded the rights of African Americans during that time period. And so I wouldn’t say we’re at the full disfranchisement moment, but we are in that middling period, in the late 1800s, let’s say 1880s, 1890s, where we saw trickery and confusion that limit as the means by which voters were suppressed.


Thankfully we have more resources at our disposal to fight that in this generation than we did in the past. I’m proud of the community of activists and attorneys in North Carolina who’ve worked very to challenge those limitations in our state. We have a governor who’s overwritten and vetoed many suppressive laws. And so I think that everyone should have that right to vote and everyone should find a way even in the face of really devastating limitations, particularly like if we look at a place like Georgia which was so successful in really creating more access, that we don’t let false stories about people voting who shouldn’t be voting run the table. But instead we, we just allow people to have equal, access equal time, equal space at the ballot, just to just have their say.


And I think we, we need to think and strategize our way through those challenges. How might we better organize voter, get out the vote efforts, to contest those limitations, to maybe create schedules that allow people to think about when are the best times that I could decrease the amount of time I’d spend on the line and thus away from my family or my job. Maybe really thinking through good strategies to support voters and their efforts to get to the polls. And we have a responsibility to make sure that they have folks they want to vote for when they get there. So I think, you know, this broad-based effort is reminiscent of what those generation of civil rights activists particularly in the 1940s had to strategize and think they were training people to pass literacy tests and helping them understand how to pay their poll taxes in order to get them into the polls. Thankfully we’re not facing bars that high yet. And yet we still might take the lesson from their strategy of how they began to push for voting rights even well before the passage of the Voting Rights Act.


HEFFNER: Might we also be better informed or take a lesson, understanding the pretext, whether they were manipulative, earnest, or full of malarkey as our president would say, justifying the earlier generation of segregation laws and the doctrine of segregation. So we all know about the mythology of separate but equal and the inability to deliver anything that remotely would achieve that, you know, separate from whether that violated the constitution, just the practical effect of that.




HEFFNER: And we know that, you know, today, the opponents of these voter ID laws, or other restrictive measures say, you know, that they suppress the vote that they’re anti-democratic or undemocratic. The supporters of those laws say, you know, we want integrity in these systems. And without having those stringent measures, we won’t have integrity. And some of them increasingly, especially with, the recent rise of the kind of new white supremacy and far right, will acknowledge that their idea of a better democracy is a less pluralistic democracy, not really a democracy, an autocracy, right. But they will, they will kind of meander weave their way through some pretext or justification. So I’m wondering how that discourse and argumentation around it compares to the segregation law era? How, how should we arm ourselves understanding kind of the arguments, whether they’re you know, genuine or disingenuous?


KELLEY: Yeah, I think you know, laws intended to, good laws are intended to solve problems, and we know that there’s no actual problem with people who shouldn’t be voting, who are busting in and fighting their way up there to just fake vote. We have the opposite problem. We have a huge percentage of people who are qualified voters who don’t participate in our system. And so given that that is the actual problem that we are facing, you wonder when you see that would make it even more difficult and more arduous for marginalized to vote, marginalized people to vote, then you, then you know, that they are creating additional hurdles.




KELLEY: If our problem is too many people drinking water on a poll line in Georgia, then I guess they solved that problem by preventing someone from giving someone a bottle of water. So when we see those kinds of brazenly suppressive techniques, we know that this isn’t an encouragement of democracy, but rather a discouragement. And when we see laws that are disingenuous, we are tracing them to the activism, to the success of these voting efforts that we’ve seen across the south. You don’t have to suppress something that’s not working well. So it’s a reminder that we need to continue the fight. It’s unfortunate that that to be the fight when there are so many things that we’ve already talked about that people are facing, that we could be organizing and, and activating against. But this is the fight that’s before us. And the stakes are quite high, particularly in our local and state elections, that we are electing people who are representative of the majority in those states, and in those communities.


HEFFNER: There’s something so frivolous and, and again, inhumane just like about, you know, tell me how many jellybeans are, are in this mug.




HEFFNER:  which happened.




HEFFNER: And if you didn’t count the exact number of jellybeans, you know, you were denied the franchise, and there is something so you know, kind of similarly mean and inhumane about the provision that you mentioned, which is not being able to give folks water you know, or feed folks on long lines.




HEFFNER: And so let, let that be said. Before we close by the time this airs likely we will have the first black woman justice on the United States Supreme Court. It doesn’t make a meaningful difference on an issue like voter ID laws or voter suppression, because the balance is still six to three in favor, largely of the kind of anti-voting suppressive measures, and on many other issues. For example, we fully anticipate maybe by the time this is running and you’re viewing on television, Roe V. Wade will have been abolished. Gratz and Grutter V. Bollinger also the affirmative action cases will be overturned. So how do you view it with this historic accomplishment that is glass ceiling breaking and at the same time, the realization that it’s not going to matter, or for the immediate, and maybe even long-term jurisprudence of this country?


KELLEY: It’s such an important moment to note such a long journey. Black women just have been fighting this fight and part of this, the civil rights fight for such a long time. So to see a black woman finally sit on the highest court in the land will be an accomplishment, no matter the circumstances and will be a welcome change to finally be re represented in that body. And she is of course, more than profoundly qualified to sit there. A reminder of that so many of the questions of affirmative action and access that will be in front of the court are so important that that the laws that paved the way for greater access were necessary and, and still in many ways remain necessary. We are facing a deep and profound challenge. The approach to the courts that has been affected on the last administration was really devastating to our ability to have a balanced look at the things that are facing us. But we recall that there’s a long history of progress and a pushback. And that this is part of our history. If we remember our history as just one climb up a hill of progress, and we’re misremembering our experiences over time. And so the activism, the passion, and the organizing that we need to see, they need to continue. We need a Voting Rights Act in front of the Congress to pass. We need to make sure that we are providing safe and effective healthcare for women. We need those things. And we’ll continue to fight for them. We had to fight for them before, and evidently, we’ll still have to fight for them now. But that, that’s a fight we’re up to, and we’re ready to, to organize and do.


HEFFNER: Blair Kelly, professor of history at NC State, North Carolina State. Thank you so much for your insight today.


KELLEY: Thanks for having me.


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