Just when you think things are changing you can be shocked to realize just how much they stay the same. Politics in Virginia are a prime example. For more than a century after the Civil War the consistent factor in politics was race baiting. The then-called Democrats in the South who later became known as Dixiecrats and today are the conservative wing of the Republican Party were successful with a variety of laws that disenfranchised African Americans.
Even with the few African Americans who could get through the labyrinth of laws that included blank sheet registration forms, literacy tests and poll taxes the scare tactic employed by too many candidates was to suggest that their opponent was a lover of black people–but using a derogatory term. That fear of black people has its roots back to the centuries where black people were enslaved and brutal enforcement and fear were used to keep them that way. The Civil War did not resolve the feeling between blacks and whites, and slave codes were replaced with Jim Crow laws that whites could use to assert supremacy over black people. For a candidate to take a position that could be interpreted as being favorable to African Americans would mean almost certain defeat at the polls.
Only Supreme Court decisions and federal laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act created a more level political playing field between the races. Continued efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and to unnecessarily complicate the voting process are still employed by some trying to maintain a structured society of white supremacy. More recently those who want to keep or expand their political power have swept immigrants–whatever their status–into the realm of those who are to be feared and suppressed from participating in the democratic process.
Many strive to gain maximum political advantage through whatever means while at the same time wanting to keep the appearance of respect and patriotism. The recent television ad with scary images and references to fear and the MS-13 gang intends to scare voters into rejecting a compassionate medical doctor with an ad that fact checkers have found to be untruthful.
Another concern from the current campaign is the suggestion from a white female candidate for lieutenant governor that her black male opponent does not understand the issues well enough to discuss them “intelligently.” Disregarding the excellent academic credentials of her opponent, her comments had the tone of the past that one observer said seemed more appropriate for 1957 than 2017.
At the national level, there are daily statements and actions that hearken back to the racial climate of the Old South. This year In Virginia, we have a unique opportunity on November 7 to make a statement with our votes that we reject the discrimination of the past. It is always important to vote, but it is more important than ever this year. Despite efforts to romanticize the Old South and the Confederacy, we need to learn the truth and understand why we need to move on.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.