Rev. William Barber: 5 Fears That Fuel Voter Suppression


Last Sunday, the Rev. William Barber, Repairers of the Breach, and people from the Moral Monday movement held an event in Raleigh, North Carolina called “The Gathering: Voting Rights.” It was live-streamed, and you can see it here (go to Livestreamed Events). I especially encourage you to watch Rev. Barber’s speech, starting at the 58 minute mark.

In that speech, Rev. Barber talked about voter suppression and five fears that fuel it. Today, I’d like to mention those fears and encourage people to engage the thoughts more deeply by watching Rev. Barber’s speech.

Rev. Barber says that voter suppression is motivated by a Fear Factor – fears of losing and sharing power and fears that we will have to recognize the full humanity of people long dehumanized.

The Fear of Full Citizenship

In the wake of the Civil War, when enslaved people were no longer enslaved, fearful debates ensued. Whites, particularly in the South, were asking fearful questions and making demands. “Were Black people going to be considered. . . full citizens?” Rev.  Barber says that people shuddered at the thought.

“The fear was, if Black people got freedom, they would want citizenship. That was the debate when Lincoln pushed the 13th Amendment — go back and read the testimony. The question kept being asked, ‘Does this mean citizenship?’. . . And this has been the fear at the heart, not only of racism, but of sexism and every other ism. Fear that some people will not only want to be free, but they will want full citizenship and all the rights thereunto.”

Fear of Legitimacy

A few months ago, a national commission was created to investigate voter fraud. Rev. Barber says that this commission created by Donald Trump is not ultminately about securing the legitimacy of his 2016 election. Instead, it exists to delegitimize the elections of Barack Obama and provide psychological cover to explain his election wins.

“This fraud commission ain’t about Trump’s election. Thought I’d tell you that. . . It’s about Obama’s election. It’s not about the last election. It’s about the two elections prior to that because birtherism didn’t work. And the role of birtherism was to provide psychological cover for those who could not bring themselves to accept a black man in a White House. . . But now, birtherism has been debunked, and so, there is a need now to delegitimize. And so what he’s trying to do with the commission is to bring up fraud, which is fraudulent in itself, to come out with a report that says these past elections — not just 2016 — were fraudulent. To give people relief. One psychologist calls it white fragility. To give people relief from the fragile state when certain people see their world falling apart.”

Fear of Changing Demographics

Demographics are changing rapidly in the United States. In 2042, Non-Hispanic Whites will no longer be in the majority of the population, and right now, for the first time, minority communities are having more births than white communities. In the midst of this, twenty-two states have passed voter suppression laws since 2010. These stats demonstrate some of their present and future impact:

“Those states represent 250 electoral votes. They also represent 54% of the Black vote in those 22 states. They also represent 44 Senators and 50% of the United States Congress. So if you can control those 22 states, you enter into the race only 20 votes short of an Electoral College win. We had 868 less voting sites in the poor and black and brown and poor white community in 2016 than we had in previous elections. . . The Brennan Center has noted that nearly 20 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives would probably not be Republican if it were not for apartheid redistricting that has gone on in the South and in the Rustbelt and in the Midwest.”

Fear of Policy Possibilities

In his speech, Rev. Barber showed a number of charts, demonstrating which states have the highest voter suppression, least healthcare expansion, lowest living wages, and highest child poverty. They overlap with the states that have the highest levels of Evangelical Protestants. Voter suppression puts people in office who promote harmful policies.

“The states that claim to have the most evangelical folk, are the same states that have the most voter suppression, the most denial of healthcare, the most denial of living wages, and the highest rates of child poverty. That is a moral sickness. That means that there’s a false brand of morality that has been playing havoc with the spirit and souls of people in America, but there’s a tide rising. See, the fear is, that if there wasn’t voter suppression and people voted, then persons that support denying healthcare and paying insurance companies, and people that support keeping living wages low, wouldn’t be in office to do those things. And that is why, my white friends, my gay friends, my labor friends, my healthcare friends, if you believe in healthcare, if you believe in living wages, if you believe in addressing poverty, you better make sure you understand: Voter suppression is not about black folk. It hits black folk, but it undermines all people and hurts every one of us.”

Fear of Other People’s Humanity

Above all, there are fears of recognizing other people’s humanity. There are fears of accepting and valuing that humanity, along with the gifts, needs, and sacred contributions that humanity presents.  Rev. Barber says,

“Underneath all of this though is a deep theological issue. . . We’ve got to bring a moral critque to the public square. Because the greatest fear, I believe, behind voter suppression is the fear of other people’s humanity. . . Systemic racism is actually an irreverant theological concept. Racism is an unholy religion. It’s not just a sociological sickness. It’s not just a political malady. It is, in fact, a disease of the spirit. Racism is idology – self worship. . . When you see voter suppression in the 21st century, understand that we are still wrestling with what we call false ontology or heretical ontology – that is, that God intended for some folk to be different, and God has made some people who were born for mistreatment. They were born for discrimination. . . And it’s time for U.S. citizens and people of faith to admit that we still have operating in our politics this irreverent religiosity that may not always be articulated in the voice, but it comes out in the policy. . . Whether they ever say it or not, there are some people who believe that there are those for whom you do not have to honor their full humanity. Which means voter suppression is sin.”

This post is a part of a series on voting rights and voter suppression. If you’d like to read more, feel free to check out these other posts:
1469 Days.
Voter Suppression: Hearing From People Directly Affected

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