Column: Where are voting rights and justice reform?

Sen. Barry Goldwater on "Meet the Press" in 1964
With a history of candidates like Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republican Party has alienated Black voters for so long that Democrats take them for granted.
(Bill Allen / Associated Press)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer-winning journalist and creator of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” said something to me last week that has been stuck in my head since: “I think most Black Americans are ambivalent about political parties. They just know one party is actively trying to legislate against their rights, and so they have to stick with the party that might not be doing much for them but at least isn’t trying to peel back their legal citizenship rights or take away their right to vote.”

That’s not your run-of-the-mill, lesser-of-two-evils commentary. No, Hannah-Jones is suggesting Black voters have been stuck in electoral purgatory since Republicans nominated for president Barry Goldwater, a man who said some parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be unconstitutional. Fast-forward to 2021, and we see Senate Republicans recently stopped the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act from coming to a vote, with Texas Republican John Cornyn calling it — you guessed it — “unconstitutional.”

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Democrats may use bullhorns to announce how they’ll fight for people of color, and Republicans prefer dog whistles to convey how they’ll fight those efforts, but at the end of the day it’s all just identity politics.

President Trump got an awful lot wrong, but he understood how to connect with his voters by addressing concerns related to their identity.

When it comes to Black voters in particular, national Democrats struggle. For example, with respect to voters’ rights and police reform, the only real action in the past year has been of the lip variety.


No wonder Black disappointment in the Democratic Party has been festering, creating a vacuum for the ambivalence that Hannah-Jones touched on. This alienation would be even more evident if Republicans ever stopped flirting with white supremacy, because more Black voters would drift over to the GOP tent. Democrats aren’t earning the support of people of color, just counting on it by default.

President Biden made this explicit during the primary when he went on “The Breakfast Club” and said: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” He was rightly criticized for the remarks and apologized. But the data back him up.

The number of registered Black Republicans cratered after 1960, and it’s not because Black people were afraid of having their Blackness memberships revoked. It’s because with Goldwater and beyond, the identity politics of the GOP drove them away.

Not that Black voters are always excited to vote blue. Sometimes we do it for the reasons Hannah-Jones outlined. Sometimes we don’t feel like pretending otherwise.

From July to September, the percentage of Black adults who said they strongly or somewhat approved of Biden’s job performance dropped 20%. W. Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, said last month in the Washington Post that “the frustration is at an all-time high” and that “Black men are pissed off about the nothingness that has happened.” He asked: “Does it make the work harder? It makes the work damn near impossible.”

A snapshot from 2020 exit polls showed racial inequality was the most important factor for about 20% of voters, and among them, 92% backed Biden. Considering Biden also earned about 90% of the Black vote, one can understand why the frustration with the party is at an all-time high.


To be fair, Biden has scored big wins since then, most recently with the passage of an infrastructure package on Friday. But where are the criminal justice reforms and voting rights protections that were so loudly touted on the campaign trail?

That isn’t just a question for Biden. This is a question for the party, because come the midterm, what exactly will the slogan be: Vote Democrat, and we’ll do everything Republicans allow us to do! Vote Democrat and next time maybe Joe Manchin will too?

Considering that Sen. Rand Paul was comfortable publicly opposing anti-lynching legislation, I’m not sure there’s much of a choice.

Compounding the frustration is seeing left-leaning pundits point to Black turnout whenever Democrats lose a high-profile election, as they did last week in Virginia. What about the party’s habit of abandoning policies Black voters care most about?

Don’t blame political defeats on “the woke” while the party continues to overlook the most important factor for voter turnout: a reason to believe it matters. It feels as if Black voters support Democrats more to keep the Barry Goldwaters away than to bring in candidates who will deliver on campaign promises. That’s why Hannah-Jones’ words about ambivalence stayed with me.

Until Democrats pass meaningful legislation addressing the issues the Black community cares most about, ambivalence is just about the best we can offer. And sadly, Democrats seem to think that’s good enough.