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Jim Crow Joe’s Voting Rights Speech Made a Mockery of the Civil Rights Movement

Joe Biden cynically spoke out in favor of voting rights, pretending to have been an activist in the civil rights movement. But for all his talk about expanding democracy, Biden serves, strengthens, legitimizes, and protects the racist, undemocratic system under which we live.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

January 14, 2022
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US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, US on Jan 11, 2022

Amidst plummeting poll numbers, rising inflation, and an Omicron surge, President Joe Biden traveled to Georgia to make a speech about voting rights in light of recent laws restricting voting. Biden went so far in this speech as to call the onslaught against voting rights “Jim Crow 2.0.” In the most impassioned speech of his Presidency, Biden invoked the Civil Rights movement and tried to position himself as part of the long and combative tradition of Black struggle for the vote. “I’m tired of being quiet!” he shouted, essentially pounding the lectern with passion. 

He even lied about getting arrested, implying he was arrested alongside activists in the Civil Rights struggle. 

Joe Biden has for decades been part of the very system — indeed he has even made the laws — that get people arrested on behalf of the white supremacist capitalist system. He is the person people get arrested for protesting against — including 60 voting rights activists arrested in Washington D.C. last December. How dare he imply that he experienced the brutality of Civil Rights fighters of the past while overseeing the brutality unleashed on participants in the current struggle for racial justice.

What is true is that voting rights are absolutely under attack. Nineteen states passed laws to restrict voting in 2021, laws that overwhelmingly affect people of color and low income people. 

While Biden was running for President, he claimed that voting rights would be a priority. After all, he needed to mobilize Black voters to the polls and funnel the Black Lives Matter movement into the Democratic Party. Black led non-profits like Black Voters Matter played a key role in winning Georgia, as well as other swing states.

Since being in office, however, Biden hasn’t done much to protect voting rights against attacks from the Right. The Republicans as a whole have embraced the Trump political line that elections can’t be trusted and are using that as a justification for continuing to restrict voting rights and water down the votes of people of color through gerrymandering, redistricting, and laws that could make elections easier to steal. 

Want to discuss Biden’s first year?  Join our online event to discuss these ideas and more on Saturday, January 22, at 3pm. 

While Biden is promising to pass voting rights laws — even if it means a (one time) change in the filibuster — for many voting rights activists, this is too little too late. Many refused to attend Biden’s speech, including ​​the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, the GALEO Impact Action Fund, and more. Stacey Abrams herself did not attend, with the convenient excuse of a “scheduling conflict.” Yet it was these very non-profits who helped push the Black Lives Matter movement into the Biden 2020 campaign instead of mounting an independent movement for democratic rights. 

Biden and his proxies want to put all the blame on Republicans. Biden’s speech was harsh against the Republicans, saying: “Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect Americans’ right to vote.” Biden went on to compare the Republicans to the segregationists of the past — while also praising his long-time friend Strom Thurmond for his stance on voting rights.

And though Joe Biden didn’t go this far, some liberals see the part certain members of the Democratic Party are playing to prevent Biden’s agenda from passing. Beyond just blaming the Republicans, they are also putting blame on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who don’t want to touch the filibuster in order to pass voting rights. Indeed, these two senators are leveraging the outsized power they have in Congress to blatantly act in the interests of the rich and powerful.

But the truth is that it’s not just two members of the Democratic Party and it’s not just the Republicans. While the Republicans are directly attacking voting rights, Biden and the Democratic Party have played no small role in maintaining the undemocratic system of governance we live under — and from this we should take the conclusion that they do not deserve our political support. The utter lack of democracy in the United States and the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color, especially Black people, is overseen and ensured by Democrats and Republicans alike — in fact, it stretches back to the Constitution and the foundation of the United States itself. And for all his talk about expanding democracy, this is the very system that Joe Biden serves, strengthens, legitimizes, and protects.

Biden’s fiery speech this week dripped with hypocrisy. All those voting rights activists who know that and see that shouldn’t turn around and canvass for Biden or the Democrats because they say some pretty words and make some nice promises. This should act as a catalyst to build an independent movement that fights for democratic rights. 

What Restrictions Are in Place? 

After the 2020 election, Donald Trump continued to perpetuate the lie that he actually won. While he was not able to wield bourgeois institutions to steal the election in 2020, the Republican Party took to reforming voting rights laws to make it harder to vote and easier to steal elections in the future. This isn’t new — both parties engage in gerrymandering and Republicans have long sought to restrict voting rights.

Some provisions make it more difficult to vote, including cutting down the time to order mail in ballots, stricter voter ID requirements, vastly limiting drop boxes, and more. Some of the most absurd provisions — like ones in Georgia — bar people from handing out water for voters in long lines. Meanwhile, some states have given partisan poll watchers the right to oversee voting, increasing voter intimidation — and harkening back to the days of the Jim Crow era.

Other provisions allow Republican-controlled local bodies more influence over the elections such as in Georgia, where the Democrats recently won the election by the skin of their teeth. The Republican-controlled legislature has more control over the State Election Board and the legislature can suspend county election officials. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which county election officials who want to certify or recount votes are suspended and replaced if their rulings go against a particular candidate. 

All of these voting restrictions primarily and overwhelmingly affect low income people and people of color, especially after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision essentially struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1964, claiming that “Our country has changed.” Clearly it has not. Every election cycle we see Black and Brown people waiting hours to cast their ballots or being turned away at the polls. Racist gerrymandering has been put on steroids after this; in Georgia one in five state assembly members who are people of color have seen their districts eliminated by redistricting. We are seeing similar maneuvers all over the country. 

Cynical Employment of Civil Rights Discourse 

Biden talked a lot about the Civil Rights movement in his speech. He spoke about Annell Ponder, a Civil Rights activist and a teacher who was arrested, jailed, and beaten for voting. Even after a brutal beating left her with a swollen face, she still managed to whisper, “Freedom.” 

Anell Ponder is one of countless Civil Rights activists who put their bodies and lives on the line for the right to vote — regular people who joined a movement and who were brutally repressed by the state. The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 followed in their footsteps. All those arrested at protests demanding justice for Black people and who fight oppression each day walk in Ponder’s footsteps. 

Joe Biden does not. The hypocrisy of his speech is almost unbearable given that just a year and a half ago Black Lives Matter activists were being beaten and arrested in cities across the country that were under the leadership of Democratic Party officials. Clearly, they weren’t too worried about the beating of civil rights activists then.

Biden seemed to imply that he was an active part of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s, which is an outright lie. He said,

I did not live the struggle of Douglass, Tubman, King, Lewis, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and countless others — known and unknown. I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds. But I walked other grounds … It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested. Anyway — (laughter). But their struggles here — they were the ones that opened my eyes as a high school student in the late — in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They got me more engaged in the work of my life.

But Joe Biden was never arrested as part of the Civil Rights movement. 

Worse, Biden opposed desegregation bussing and was a member of Congress for the state of Delaware while they still maintained segregationist policies. 

Further, Biden is the author of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which vastly expanded the prison industrial complex, disenfranchising millions of people. The bill is a laundry list of brutal, state-organized mass incarceration. It led to a boom in the number of police officers and prisons, lengthened prison sentences, and created financial incentives to keep people in jail. It created 60 new death penalty offenses as well as the infamous “three strikes and you’re out” rule, which inflicted a life sentence for almost any crime, even ones considered very minor. And of course, all the people that Biden was personally responsible for locking up lost the right to vote while in prison and many lost the right to vote when they got let out.

More recently, Biden and Kamala Harris played a central role in demobilizing the Black Lives Matter movement and funneling it to the polls. They played a central role in legitimizing the system that killed George Floyd and let Kyle Rittenhouse walk free.

And yet Joe Biden has the audacity to talk about civil rights as if he were a fighter for Black rights and for voting rights. We shouldn’t buy it. 

The System Is Already Not Democratic

The Democrats have two voting rights bills pending in Congress. The For the People Act, expands voter protections and was passed by the House of Representatives months ago. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act was also presented months ago and is meant to restore some of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

In Biden’s speech, he promises to change the filibuster “if necessary” to enact some kind of voting rights legislation, but there is no guarantee that he will do so.

But the bigger issue is that while Joe Biden claims to be fighting for the heart of democracy, the U.S. electoral system is wildly undemocratic even beyond these recent attacks on voting rights.  And this lack of democracy disproportionately affects people of color. 

The electoral college ensures that the popular vote doesn’t determine elections and diminishes the votes of people of color. In the Senate, small states are disproportionately represented — and small states typically have fewer Black people. David Leonhardt calculated that white people have 0.35 senators per million people, while Black people have 0.26, and Latinos stand at just 0.19. He called it “affirmative action for white people.” Joe Biden said it was “designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

And as Left Voice wrote in 2020, this lack of democracy is also expressed in the systematic exclusion of imprisoned people, racist gerrymandering, kicking people off the voter rolls, closing polling stations in low income communities of color, voter ID laws, and more. 

Both political parties have maintained, overseen and upheld these undemocratic mechanisms. Joe Biden has been elected to office since the 70s and has never been a champion for voting rights. The Democrats have held all branches of government and in the case of President Obama and Vice President Joe, they enjoyed a super majority in Congress and didn’t address any of the systemic voting rights issues. 

Fight for Democratic Rights

Biden’s speech in Atalanta isn’t about the rights of Black people or any kind of commitment to democracy. It’s about plummeting approval ratings and a hope to appeal to Black people with faux promises and tap into the legitimate fear of a white supremacist far Right. 

It’s a cheap trick the Democrats try over and over again. It’s what has put and kept them in office, but also what has kept social movements on an electoral hamster wheel that picks up momentum and is promptly diverted into the graveyard of social movements. 

We do need to fight for more democratic rights in this incredibly undemocratic system. We must fight against all the right-wing undemocratic measures currently being proposed by Republicans. But we must demand a much broader expansion of democratic rights than the Democrats are proposing, including abolishing the Senate, Electoral College, and providing everyone over the age of 15 the vote. 

But in the end, capitalism will only provide the appearance of democracy. It is never going to provide real and full democracy; after all, the means of production stay in the hands of a few tyrants who force people back to work in the midst of a pandemic, or force workers to stay at work during a tornado. There is no real democracy in a country that keeps millions of people locked in cages in the United States and at the border. There is no real democracy while work is a dictatorship of capital and while the government exists to serve those big bosses. That’s why we must fight for the greatest expansion for democratic rights within the capitalist system, but with the perspective of overthrowing this undemocratic system for good and creating a system of real democracy — of mass workers democracy, of socialism.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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