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Ibram Kendi and Allan Lichtman Discuss the Struggle over Voting Rights

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Two men in chairs in SIS room with AU backdrop.
Ibram Kendi (left) and Allan Lichtman spoke at a fascinating forum in the Abramson Family Founders Room at SIS.

This election season, state officials from Georgia to North Dakota to Kansas are under fire for alleged voter suppression tactics. While Republicans say these measures curtail voter fraud, Democrats call them thinly veiled attempts to decrease minority and youth turnout.

On Thursday, November 1, American University professors Ibram X. Kendi and Allan J. Lichtman offered highly informed insights on the subject in the Abramson Family Founders Room at the School of International Service. It was a discussion that went beyond voting and elections to address race and citizenship in the US.

Lichtman recently published The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present, arguing that Americans were denied a constitutional right to vote. Kendi, who wrote the award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, spoke with authority on the racial dynamics of voting rights.

Both professors criticized voter suppression efforts, while emphasizing that these tactics—now subtler and more sophisticated—have existed since the country’s founding.

Kendi directs the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, and he’s both an SIS professor and a history professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Lichtman is a distinguished professor of history in CAS. Both Kendi and Lichtman are revered academics, which SIS dean Christine BN Chin acknowledged in her introduction.

“They’re not just excellent scholars. Both of them have made their marks in the wider popular culture,” said Chin.


Old Patterns, New Methods

Like a good teacher, Lichtman opened the discussion with a pop quiz for the audience. “When was the first voting rights act suit filed in America?” he asked. It was all the way back in the 1830s, when an African-American man named William Fogg brought suit in Pennsylvania.

Even though the Quaker-influenced state constitution was colorblind, Fogg was blocked from voting at the polls. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Fogg’s request, and added insult to injury: “They did hold out some hope for African Americans,” Lichtman sarcastically explained. “The Supreme Court said, ‘Well, maybe over time and many generations, African Americans will be so bleached out that they’ll look like whites. And then they can vote.’”

That shocking anecdote highlighted the racism that has defined voting rights history.

Lichtman and Kendi tied this issue to contemporary controversies. Lichtman was an expert witness on North Carolina voting rights cases, and he says state Republican legislators acted almost immediately after the US Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

“They introduced five extremely restrictive measures, including a stringent photo ID law, all aimed at African Americans who are the rising part of the electorate,” Lichtman said.

He argued that Republicans—not just in North Carolina but everywhere—are pushing these stringent voter laws because their base is shrinking. “What’s the most rising part of the electorate? Minorities and young people. Republicans can’t manufacture more old white Christians,” Lichtman said. “But they can try to restrict the vote of the rising group of minorities and young people. And that’s what these voter restrictions are all about.”

Kendi and Lichtman said GOP voter fraud claims are largely unfounded, and they characterized this issue as one of power and benefits. Many people assume voter fraud cries are born of ignorance, but Kendi said they’re about propagating myths to implement exclusionary voting rules.

“At least in today’s political environment, you have to create a justification. So voter fraud became the justification for a policy that benefited those Republican operatives,” Kendi argued. “The political self-interest came before the policies, and then the ideas that these young people, or senior citizens, or Native Americans, or African Americans, were fraudulent. Those racist ideas then came, and then people consumed those ideas.”

Historically, there’s a widespread notion—even among liberals and opponents of voter suppression—that some people aren’t capable voters, Kendi said. Radical white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison argued that slavery was so dehumanizing, newly freed blacks were not ready to vote. And those beliefs extend to how many contemporary Americans view people in poverty.

“We’ve been misled into believing that there’s something culturally, or even behaviorally, wrong with these groups of people. Which then plays into this notion of these people being fraudulent or even corrupt voters,” Kendi noted.


Racial Gerrymandering and Complex Problems

Kendi and Lichtman had an extensive discussion about political gerrymandering. For example, Lichtman said after Pennsylvania redistricting, the GOP won 49 percent of the statewide congressional vote but snagged 72 percent of congressional seats.

“The good news is the Pennsylvania congressional gerrymander is the only gerrymander in the history of the country to be struck down by the courts,” said Lichtman, before quizzing the crowd again. Who struck this map down? “The same Pennsylvania Supreme Court that in 1837 denied William Fogg’s suit and wrote African Americans out of the political community.”

Yet the professors also explained how gerrymandering isn’t just a partisan problem. If state GOP legislators devise more Republican-friendly congressional districts, some Democratic officeholders tacitly benefit from this. Pushing more minority voters into a smaller number of districts might make the Democratic Party less competitive statewide, but it creates an extremely safe seat for an individual Democratic member. This is what Kendi observed in Florida with former Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown’s seat.

“Just as people created that district out of political self-interest, you’ve had people who resisted its elimination out of political self-interest,” Kendi said. “That’s created another set of problems, because you have this very powerful black politician who was against a more egalitarian [map]. And so I think it allows us to also see the way in which racist policies sometimes benefit people of color at the same time it’s benefitting white supremacy.”

Similar to Pennsylvania, Lichtman saw positive developments in Florida. The League of Women Voters and other activists got an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment on the ballot, and Florida voters subsequently approved the measure.

“While it didn’t totally cure the gerrymandering, it did make a big difference,” said Lichtman.


Holding the Power, Making the Rules

During the question-and-answer session, Lichtman expanded on this point and offered a few solutions. He suggested anti-gerrymandering state constitutional amendments and, like Arizona and Iowa, establishing independent commissions to draw district lines.

“There actually is a very clear blueprint—even if the [US] Supreme Court doesn’t act, and I don’t think it will—for dealing with the problem of racial gerrymandering. But it requires grassroots activism,” Lichtman said.

Having one political party’s elected officials regulate voting and elections, they stressed, is inherently flawed. This gets to the matter of control, and Kendi offered a compelling basketball analogy.

“If the Golden State Warriors, who have won the last few titles, had the power to basically shape NBA rules—you know, they would win forever,” Kendi said. “In many other places of society, that would seem to be crazy and anathema. But it’s a regular, normal part of this political system.”


Racial Exclusion and ‘the Other’

Perhaps inevitably, this led to a deeper probe of the nation’s historic treatment of nonwhites and immigrants. Talking about the political conditions in the early 1900s, Kendi suggested swapping out current Latinx immigrants for Eastern and Southern European migrants.

“Political operatives, particularly Anglo-Saxons, feared that if they came in mass, and started voting in mass, they would vote them out…This is the irony. We have thousands of Latinx people coming in? There were millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans coming,” Kendi said. “[Anglo-Saxon leaders] wanted to create these policies to exclude these people politically and economically.”

Lichtman added, “The fear of the other, and the exclusion of the other, is as old as the republic. The other has changed, but the ideology is the same.”