In 1898 the state of Louisiana held a constitutional convention with the declared aim of disenfranchising black people and perpetuating white rule. “Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done,” reads the official journal of the convention. Legal means were found to scrub 130,000 registered black voters from the rolls and allow juries to come to non-unanimous verdicts in felony trials, including those involving the death penalty.
This measure might sound technical, or even be presented as a bid to make the court system more efficient, but its real purpose was thoroughly racist. It effectively side-stepped the constitutional requirement that black people should serve on juries, which gave them some leverage in resisting legal discrimination against the black population.
Since there were usually only one or two black jurors on a jury, they only had influence so long as verdicts were unanimous. Once a split verdict was allowed, then all-white juries could effectively decide the fate of defendants by a 10 to 2 verdict. This entrenched the legal bias against black people for over a century.
It was only last Tuesday that voters in Louisiana approved an amendment that abolished this toxic Jim Crow law that had survived the civil rights movement because it was not demonstrably racist written down, despite its obvious racist intent. Oregon is now the only state that does not require juries to reach unanimous verdicts.
Votes like the one in Louisiana – though little reported by the media – are often more important in their effect on people’s lives than the choice of elected representative in Congress.
Some of these votes have vast political consequences: great attention is given to the races for the governorship and senate in Florida and too little to the decision by voters to restore the voting rights of ex-felons though this will re-enfranchise nearly 1.5 million people in Florida or 9.2 per cent of the voting-age population. These are people who have completed felony sentences, but until now had lost the right to vote in a state that is often described as evenly divided between Republican and Democrat.
The purpose of denying ex-felons the right to vote was much the same as that expressed openly by those attending the Louisiana constitutional convention 120 years ago. Depriving felons of the vote was purportedly non-racist since it applied to every ex-convict, but in practice it targeted the black population. Some 418,000 out of a black working age population of 2.3 million in Florida have felony convictions. This is just under 18 per cent of the potential black voting population who, if they could have cast a ballot, would have ensured that the Democratic candidates for governor and the Senate were elected.
Only two other states – Iowa and Kentucky – bar former felons from voting, so the situation in Florida was always out of the ordinary. This should be very obvious but pundits mulling over the political divisions in Florida last Tuesday night seldom mentioned this crucial act of voter suppression.
The midterm elections confirmed the extent to which the US is racially divided, though this was scarcely a mystery to anybody who has spent any time in the country. It was easy enough for President Trump to whip up racial fears and animosities by demonising the so-called caravan of Central American migrants in Mexico.
Trump is always skilful in dominating the news agenda and he did so again in the final weeks of the campaign. His success was hugely aided by the lack of any Democratic leader able to rebut him in equally attention-grabbing terms. The media dances too easily to Trump’s tunes, but, since the Democrat leaders don’t play any memorable tunes of their own, it is difficult to know what else the journalists can do.
The absence of an effective Democrat leadership also opened the door to Trump’s partial success in claiming a great victory in the elections, though, in losing the House of Representatives, he has overall suffered a defeat. Many of these ploys are scarcely new: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invariably claims an electoral triumph before all the votes are counted and a winner declared. Populist nationalist leaders with cult-like attributes the world over all show the same need to project an aura of inevitable success.
This unrelenting focus on Trump and the struggles at the apex of American politics is often irrelevant to what is happening, both good and bad, on the ground. It does not bring anybody very close to understanding what makes America tick and how far and in what direction this is changing.
A better guide to this is often local or state-wide initiatives or the election of new district attorneys or sheriffs who actually implement the law. In Alabama, for instance, two counties have voted to ban their sheriffs from being allowed to take for themselves any money left over from that allocated to pay for food for prisoners after they have been fed. This is a significant amount of money, with one sheriff keeping $750,000 which he invested in the purchase of a beach house. Since it is in the financial interest of sheriffs to spend as little as possible on feeding their prisoners, it is not surprising that they go hungry. In one case, where the sheriff had legally pocketed $200,000, a judge found “undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight”.
I found when I was a correspondent in the US that visiting foreigners, who came from centralised states, usually exaggerated the role and power of the federal government and underestimated that of local officials in the states. An example of this on Tuesday was the election of progressive DAs in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio in Texas, a state that holds 218,500 people in jail or prison. Many are there because the state authorities have criminalised poverty. The choice of DA will decide to what extent people who cannot pay minor fines end up spending years in incarceration.
Resistance to such injustices is strong and growing with the return of over one million people to the electoral roll in Florida being the most important sign of this.
The shock effect of the rise of Trump is great but is exacerbated in the minds of many Americans and most foreigners because they underestimate the extent to which the US is a racially and socially divided country. Slavery left a mark on black and white people that has never been eradicated. Trump is a symptom of this rather than an aberration. That is why his type of politics will persist, but so too will the opposition.