This week, Congress failed to pass voting rights legislation for, at least, the fifth time in Biden’s term. It is one of the most consequential failures of our time. Voting rights are, fundamentally, not about some nebulous notion of participation, but self-determination. The present war on voting rights, like the war on voting rights from Reconstruction to the ‘60s, is waged by those who defend voter suppression as race-neutral and colorblind methods of maintaining political power. Instead of re-implementing primordial barriers to voter registration designed to target and humiliate individual Black people, like poll taxes, literacy tests, and guessing the number of butter beans in a jar, Republican state legislatures across the country have organized a mass campaign to steal elections through legislation that targets Black communities— limiting absentee-ballot drop boxes by claiming without evidence that they are susceptible to fraud, lowering the threshold for overturning elections, empowering themselves to disqualify voters and shut down polling precincts, and extreme gerrymandering. This shift in strategy is a direct response to being tactically outmaneuvered by Black Voting Rights Movement strategists and organizers who, from 1963-1965, resisted the tyranny of white supremacist governance with mass voter registration drives and marches that pressured the federal government to intervene. Now, after waiting until the eleventh hour to support altering the filibuster, Democrats have lost another bill and it seems that all they can do now is revert to advocating high voter turnout. The problem is that this wave of voter suppression is more sophisticated than the last. It’s designed to render the collective efforts of Black people irrelevant. The point is to deprive Black people of power no matter how much they mobilize and organize and protest. Russian election interference has nothing on the persistent antiBlackness of U.S. conservatives who have no shame and U.S. liberals who have no spine.
After enduring disproportionate subjection to police brutality and COVID infection, the very concept of a Black “citizen” continues to implode before our very eyes. The insistence that diversity or inclusion or awards or federal holidays or money or fame will somehow be the conduit that transforms Black people from slaves (i.e. entities recognized as commodities and valued solely for productive capacity) or wards of the state into “citizens” has proven, time and again, to be a dead end. In her essay, “The Slavebody and the Blackbody,” Toni Morrison observed that the slavebody was associated with dishonor, while the Blackbody is associated with contempt. It is, in fact, contempt that Mitch McConnell expresses when, after being asked by a reporter if he has a message for voters of color who are concerned that they aren’t going to be able to vote in the midterm due to the failure of voting rights legislation, he responds, “Well, the concern is misplaced because, if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” Contempt is what precludes and preempts the Blackbody from being citizen. But contempt is what also allows the Blackbody to define freedom for itself and be autonomous on its own terms.
It’s important to remember that even MLK, Jr., America’s quintessential example of respectable Black embodiment, recognized the limits of integration. In a conversation with Harry Belafonte, Dr. King incisively warned that, “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” One way to read this is Dr. King simply acknowledging that integration was the end of one struggle and the beginning of another. But another way to read it is that, at some point, Dr. King realized integration as a matter of living free from contempt wasn’t a true possibility for Black people at all. If a house is on fire, then entering isn’t a real option. Could it have been a tacit admission that integration was, not only dangerous, but, ultimately, irrelevant? Could it have been a warning that, if we didn’t change course and embrace a more expansive vision of the goals of our collective body, we’d be burnt to a crisp?