Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“It’s a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” That’s how Stacey Abrams, who spearheaded efforts to organize Black voters in Georgia for the 2020 election, recently described the deluge of new voter restriction laws proposed by Republicans in the Georgia state legislature in the wake of their defeat. Cliff Albright of the Black Voters Matter Fund echoed Abrams, saying the new restrictions, which include new ID requirements and limits on drop boxes, are just “putting a little makeup and cologne on Jim Crow.”
The idea that these new voting restrictions are a more sanitized version of Jim Crow says a lot about popular understanding of that era of racism and discrimination (something Abrams and Albright clearly know, and are speaking to). Next to images of White protesters snarling at civil rights activists at sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 or police officers siccing German Shepherds on Black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, the image of legislators calmly enacting a series of discriminatory restrictions seems far more civilized.
Yet, even at its violent peak, Jim Crow had another side, one that always wore a suit and tie, especially when it came to voter disenfranchisement. Required to navigate around the 15th Amendment, which explicitly prohibited barring Black men from voting, White Southern legislators innovated a kind of colorblind racism that would go on to become the right’s preferred tool for opposing civil rights advances in the post-Jim Crow era. Looked at through that lens, the current rush to restrict voting rights is less proof of the resuscitation of Jim Crow than evidence that it never really went away.
Jim Crow, a name derived from racist minstrel shows that would come to stand in for the entire segregationist regime of the South, emerged in the late 19th century as a series of anti-Black laws: laws that stripped Black men of the right to vote, segregated public spaces, barred Black people from certain types of jobs.
Disenfranchisement, which came first and helped make the rest possible, was neither an easy nor a nonviolent process. It involved paramilitary violence against Black and Republican voters, mass voter fraud, and, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, an outright White supremacist coup against the sitting government. Only after White Democrats wrested power away from Reconstruction state governments in the 1870s and 1880s were they able to institute laws that stripped Black people of the right to vote.
Redemption governments, as these new White supremacist legislatures were known, instituted laws that were, on their face, racially neutral, even though their intent and effect were to disenfranchise Black voters. Poll taxes and literacy tests backed by discriminatory voter registrars did most of the work.
Some states also instituted grandfather clauses – laws that said a person could vote if someone related to them could vote before the end of the Civil War – in order to rescue poor White voters who were also disenfranchised by their inability to pay the taxes and pass the tests. The clauses were a way to build White racial solidarity despite the entrenched economic inequality of the region.
The Jim Crow regime that followed and lasted until the mid-1960s was purposefully built to make racial apartheid look respectable in an orderly, ostensibly nonviolent way. White politicians, teachers, and business leaders all pitched segregation laws as fundamentally progressive, a way to keep the peace in a land that had been racked by postwar violence. It was, of course, enforced by profound violence, from the Ku Klux Klan to Southern police forces to orgies of violence that accompanied massive resistance in the 1950s and 1960s. But White Southerners used Jim Crow laws to flip the arguments about the cause of that violence. It was not, in their telling, White southerners who were to blame, but the outside agitators and local Black activists who did not follow the laws of the Jim Crow South. That was propaganda – a point made viscerally clear during the nonviolent protests of the civil rights era – but it was propaganda that has remained a powerful political tool to this day.
That propaganda also hid the way disenfranchisement enabled so much of the violence in the White South. Without access to political power, Black voters had little control over policing or public safety or any of the laws that constrained their citizenship. More than that, to deny Black Southerners the right to vote was to deny their full citizenship and, indeed, their full humanity. The denial of citizenship rights is fundamentally dehumanizing, enabling and encouraging the very brutality that White Southern elites used Jim Crow to distance themselves from.
Court rulings in the 1940s and 1950s, most notably Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, chipped away at these overtly discriminatory practices, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did away with the old Jim Crow regime altogether over time. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered new protections for Black voters, primarily through federal enforcement and oversight of traditionally discriminatory districts.
But racist discrimination has proved to be a wily thing. When stripped of their law-and-order costume by new legislation and court rulings outlawing segregation, those in favor of White rule fashion a new suit and tie to wear. Colorblind racism became the style in conservative circles in the 1970s, and not just in the South.
Antibusing activists in Boston shifted to talk of “neighborhood schools” instead of segregation, and 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan, who had opposed both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts as he began eyeing a gubernatorial run in California, sought ways to thwart the new civil rights regime without championing explicitly racist laws. Take, for instance, his efforts to extend tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University, which had lost its federal tax credits because it banned interracial dating among its students. Or his opposition to school integration via busing and to affirmative action, which his administration framed as “reverse discrimination.”
It was the governing equivalent of the political dog whistle: it was no longer acceptable to be overtly racist in lawmaking or rhetoric, so conservative lawmakers used ostensibly neutral procedures to ensure that civil rights laws were only lightly enforced.
Alongside efforts to dismantle the machinery of civil rights enforcement, Republicans began the Reagan era with coordinated efforts to intimidate Black voters with threats of arrest and violence in New Jersey – so much so that the party had to enter into a consent decree in the early 1980s to prevent officially-sanctioned voter intimidation (a consent decree that only recently expired).
Following the election of Barack Obama, the party immediately passed hundreds of new voter restrictions that were facially neutral but carefully aimed at disenfranchising Black voters. As a federal judge ruled in 2016, voter restrictions like those in North Carolina “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Now in the wake of the 2020 election, that targeting has resumed with renewed vigor.
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Is this Jim Crow in a new suit, or just Jim Crow? The distinction hardly matters. What matters is that disenfranchisement, framed in racially neutral terms but with significant racist intent and impact, has been a cornerstone of the fight over voting rights in the US for nearly 150 years. Despite mountains of legislation and court rulings, the conservative turn by the Supreme Court (which gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013) and the turn to minoritarian rule by the Republican Party have combined to create the most sustained assault on voting rights in the US since the 1960s.
And while it may still wear a suit and tie, it also still marches hand in hand with both state violence and mob violence, as we were once again reminded during the insurrection at the Capitol. In fact, it’s precisely because Jim Crow has always been clothed in respectability during the day and worn a hood at night that we should be on alert when we see a Jim Crow-like figure in a business suit, because if history is any indication, that’s not the only way we’ll see him before all is said and done.