What’s wrong with this picture? A federal appeals court in Mississippi, in recently considering whether to overturn an 1890 law that makes it almost impossible for ex-convicts to ever vote again, wrote that the law was “steeped in racism” from its very inception. Then that same court upheld the law anyway, saying Mississippi has made enough progress in modern times to avoid the law’s historically racist outcomes. But all indications are that those racist outcomes continue, in Mississippi and almost a dozen other states that still disenfranchise ex-convicts.
Long before the current wave of red state laws making it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to vote, some states barred ex-convicts from voting, often with laws written during the Jim Crow era with racial disenfranchisement specifically in mind. In addition to ignoring the fact that released ex-convicts have by definition paid their debt to society, the practice effectively targets Blacks more than whites because poverty, lack of opportunity and racist police and court systems mean Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated.
The cause-and-effect of Black disenfranchisement from these laws is clear from more than just the data. In the case of the Mississippi law that the appeals court just upheld, that disenfranchisement was the whole point and was stated explicitly by the state legislators who wrote it more than a century ago.
“That is what we are here for today — to secure the supremacy of the white race,” declared one of the delegates to Mississippi’s 1890 convention, where the law was approved.
In service to that goal, the delegates didn’t merely make all crimes disenfranchising for life but included only those crimes they thought Blacks would be most likely to have on their records. One of the law’s authors specified later that the purpose of the law was “no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the ‘ignorant and vicious,’ as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger.”
The majority opinion in the appeals court ruling last month acknowledged this racist provenance for the law (it’s undeniable, after all) but found that “Mississippi has conclusively shown that any taint associated with (the original law) has been cured.” It based that optimistic supposition on later changes to the law — none of which changed the fact that those convicted under a state criminal justice system in which there is strong evidence of systemic racism even today are barred for life from voting.
In a dissent, Judge James E. Graves Jr. noted that even these supposedly cleansing changes were made in the 1960s, as Mississippi’s all-white Legislature was “engaged in massive and violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement” then raging.
“Handed an opportunity to right a 130-year-old wrong,” wrote Graves, “the majority instead upholds it.” The same could be said of ex-convict disenfranchisement laws still on the books around America.