Tag Archives: Race

Felony Disenfranchisement

(This post is similar to the one that I originally wrote for this Web site)

Yesterday my colleague Amy Wysowski began an interesting and relevant conversation about this issue especially as we rapidly approach this year’s Election Day. Also, another colleague, Jackie Linge, drawing on her prior legal experience, added fascinating insight (as well as the human side of the story).

After reading the comments from Amy’s post, I thought maybe this issue needed its own post for ongoing discussion.

First, if you are interested in knowing what New York State felonies are, this site provides a list by offense level. Did you know there are A1 and A2 level felonies, B violent felonies, B non-violent felonies, C violent felonies, C non-violent felonies, D violent felonies, D non-violent felonies, and E felonies? Have a look at the lists. You may be surprised by what you see — and let’s not forget the broad discretion prosecutors have in deciding what charges should be brought in cases.

In New York State if you are convicted of any of the above, you will lose your right to vote (until you are on probation). It is also very hard to get a job (much less a good one) after a felony conviction.

FairVote2020 has some neat interactive charts and maps with loads of good information about felony disenfranchisement across the U.S. by state.

Dan Filler, blogging at the Faculty Lounge, writes:

Felon disenfranchisement has an intuitive appeal – we deny the right to vote to those who breach the fundamental social contract and violate the law.  But these laws have deeply racist roots and a dramatically disparate racial impact today.  There is also a deep democratic problem with the policy; as we criminalize and prosecute more and more conduct, we passively strip more and more citizens of voting rights.

Most states added felon disenfranchisement laws in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is no coincidence that more people gained the right to vote at that exact moment (at least in writing on the Federal level, via the 13th, 14th, 15th, and later the 19th amendments). Only two states allow everyone to vote (including those who are incarcerated): Vermont and Maine. Those two states are each almost 97% white (the highest white populations by state).

For more information and the latest news, see the Right To Vote Campaign, a collaboration between the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Sentencing Project. The Right To Vote Campaign has led on this issue, but its own Web site has been down recently for some reason.

Late Update: See this New York Times article from Sunday’s edition, “States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, but Issue Remains Politically Sensitive” and accompanying multimedia map from The Sentencing Project.

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Just One Additional Poll Question

A Rasmussen poll from yesterday finds that 53% of voters (including half of Democrats and 2/3 majority of Republicans) think Barack Obama’s “dollar bill” comment was racist, while 38% disagree. (In the same poll, only 22% of voters think that the McCain commercial with Obama and Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton was racist, while 63% say is was not.) Watch Obama making his “dollar bill” comment and judge for yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  1. This is something Obama has talked about consistently for the last year. He has been saying that “they” (any of his opponents) will be trying to make voters afraid of him — “and did I mention he’s black?” — at a fundraiser in Florida in mid-June. Not a word from the McCain campaign then. So timing (not even a full week after Obama arrived back from week on the world stage, on which he seemed to excel) is something to keep in mind here. Maybe something of a, “Quick, change the subject” type move.
  2. Obama never said that the McCain campaign (nor the candidate himself) was racist. He never used the word “racist” or the word “McCain” in the “dollar bill” comment.
  3. Excelscior1, blogging at DailyKos, says that perhaps Obama’s comment was in direct response to a McCain web ad where Obama’s face is placed on the $100 bill, as the voiceover asks, “what will he change next?” It is possible that he was indirectly referring to this web-ad (I believe the ad first ran in late June, but have not verified that yet).

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Rasmussen poll should have included one more question that directly addresses the substance — which I’ve been saying is sorely lacking from the discussion on all of this — of Obama’s “dollar bill” comment: “Is it racist that every one of the 43 presidents of the United States has been a white male?” I think the results of that question would add some context to Rasmussen’s poll numbers. Now, it is an incontrovertible fact that there have been 43 white male U.S. presidents (i.e. all of them). This is also obvious, and I think Obama’s “dollar bill” comment basically alluded to this fact. So I’m going to have to assume, based on common sense, that the Rasmussen poll results from above and from my additional question would correlate with one another. Regardless, the results, I think, would say something about Americans’ understanding of what is “racist” and what is not, as well as well as how we generally understand racism.

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When Race is Forced Front and Center

It’s the first week of August, and instead of talking about the enormous challenges (and crises) this country faces, the McCain campaign and its surrogates have driven the “Double-Talk Express” and the debate into the mud. The last week has been almost entirely about Barack Obama and his character. The constant chatter and shouting matches on cable news have been about race, Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. Excellent political analysis of the last week can be found in this John Heilemann article.

So all this got me thinking: is this really where we’re at in this country? Why do we settle for such garbage? The McCain campaign is hitting every possible negative angle through, as Heilemann notes, “distortion, innuendo, and outright slander.” In one word, deliberate lies. The caricature of Barack Obama is, as we speak, being painted and hustled out to the American public in an extremely calculated fashion.

I think that Bob Herbert hit the nail right on the head today by discussing what I was writing about in my last post. Some choice excerpts from Herbert’s column:

You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.

and

Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race. Senator Obama has spoken more honestly and thoughtfully about race than any other politician in many years. Senator McCain is the head of a party that has viciously exploited race for political gain for decades.

This week, what many earlier this year were worried would happen if Obama became the Democratic nominee, i.e. a presidential campaign with race being forced front and center, happened. Why? Because Republicans know that if the campaign is about Obama and his race (cleverly disguised in code language like “other” and “American”), they have their only real shot at winning the election.

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“Playing the Race Card”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is annoyed by the phrase, “playing the race card.” Today, the McCain campaign is accusing Barack Obama of using — what conventional wisdom calls — one of the most vile cards in the politics deck.

The idea of playing the race card is just a silly catch-all phrase that is designed to elicit some sort of negative response about the cardholder. Really, what does playing the race card mean? First of all, race is something that will be in this campaign no matter what. There have been 43 white male presidents in U.S. history. Here we have the first black major-party candidate with a real shot of becoming president, do you think that white males will just sit back and let that happen without reminding voters, “uh, excuse me, but he’s black.”

Of course not. There is too much history here. The unfinished business of slavery and its legacy continues to this very day because it was never dealt with fully, and Americans like to pretend that “we have moved beyond that.” So, until we actually deal with our history, race will be a part of the conversation.

Second, what journalists should be doing — instead of hyperventilating over who is “playing the race card” — is having real discussion about the content, or substance, of what is being called “playing the race card.” Most importantly, journalists should ask, who is actually benefiting from the focus of race in the campaign?

In this case, it’s the McCain campaign that will benefit. Their narrative so far about Obama (and amplified by the series of viral smear emails going around) has been all about Obama not being American enough, not patriotic enough, not putting his country first (see McCain’s new tagline), being the quintessential “other” (read: too black, or a Muslim which he is not — not that either of these should preclude one from becoming president).

And one last thing: the notion that the Obama campaign is playing the race card is just ridiculous. Why? Because, when you look at Obama, he is clearly black, or at least not white (though he is half, yet identifies as black; but more on identity/race/perception in the U.S. at some other time). So in a way, I guess Obama is a “walking race card.” Please. Look at history. It does not benefit him to be black when running for the presidency, and even if it did, he would maybe only be on equal ground with a white male at that point.

Late Update: I just want to re-emphasize the new McCain tagline, “COUNTRY FIRST” (refer to why a few paragraphs above), because there is a big kick-off (and free) “Country First” Concert tonight 8/1/08 in Panama City, Florida. This, combined with the negative ads this week, combined with the viral smear emails, is clearly the new unified message strategy. Everyone, repeat after me. The new tagline says it all. Check the screenshot below of the campaign website with the tagline blazed across the top.

"Obama is not quite American enough"

"Country First" -- read: "Obama is not quite American enough"

Later Update: The “Country First” Concert with John McCain last night only draws several hundred people, which is only a fraction of what country music star John Rich normally gets at his concerts — usually in the thousands — and remember, this concert was free.

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