Jesse Jackson's Long, Misguided March


Rev. Jesse Jackson exited the U.S. Supreme Court Monday and predicted a "civil rights explosion," accusing Bush of stealing the election with the assistance of his brother Jeb, who allegedly targeted African American voters for disenfranchisement. "All that we've bled for and suffered for the last 25 years is now in the balance here today," Jackson told reporters. "This case is up with the Dred Scott level of case; did a black man have a right the white man was bound to respect?" Continued Jackson, "People will not surrender to this tyranny. We will fight back."

This is incendiary stuff—the sort of rhetorical bombshell capable of starting a three-alarm fire. But so far, not a single congressional Democrat has denounced his remarks.

Why should they? Jackson was emoting well within the established rules of modern American politics. Only whites—especially white Republicans—are capable of irresponsibly playing the race card to incite passions and motivate voters. Blacks who once led civil rights struggles, or at least walked beside Martin Luther King, know they can allege almost anything they want to stir up racial passions and fears. The public has been treated to this repeatedly through our long electoral purgatory, with Jackson claiming repeatedly that African-American voters were systematically targeted for exclusion from the electoral process. He has done so with only the thinnest of evidence to back it up.

Sadly, Jackson has not been going it alone. Nor was such rhetoric only introduced after Election Day. In a gesture that made the Willie Horton ad seem tame, the NAACP spent $2 million to air a commercial that all but accused Bush of chaining a black man to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him to death. The connection: The governor had failed to support a specific hate-crimes bill in Texas (though he has expressed support for other hate-crimes legislation). Never mind that the perpetrators were swiftly and harshly punished, with two of the three killers scheduled for death and the third garnering a life sentence.

For his part, Al Gore didn't merely rely on proxy groups to incite racial passions. As Andrew Sullivan points out in a recent New Republic article, his campaign manager Donna Brazille, told the Washington Post, that she was going to beat the "white boys." Gore himself, in an direct attack on the U.S. Supreme Court he must now regret, claimed the strict constructionists Bush would appoint recalled for him the original Constitution, with its notorious three-fifths clause.

The message of the Democrats' highly successful get out the black vote effort was simple in its distortion: A Bush presidency means a return to pre-Civil Rights Era, if not pre-Civil War, America. I personally caught Jesse Jackson's road show in October when he appeared in New Haven, Connecticut. "In 1894, we were going along pretty well and blacks were attending Yale and Harvard," said Jackson. "And then in an obscure case, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled for legal apartheid. States' righters took that court and tossed America back. We must not make that same mistake." Jackson had helpfully already defined Bush as a states' righter.

So now that Gore has lost, Jackson is down in Florida, over in Memphis, in front of the Supreme Court—wherever there's likely to be a bank of TV cameras—claiming that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and others are stealing the election by denying blacks the vote.

His specific allegations, and those of fellow travelers such as Al Sharpton and the NAACP, include roadblocks designed to keep blacks from the polls, intimidating police interviews of black voters, incomplete voting lists, blacks being unfairly purged from voting rolls, poor technology in heavily black precincts, and the late delivery of ballots to a historically black college.

These charges raise at least two questions. First, are they in fact accurate? Second, if so, were they the result of a "systematic targeting" of African Americans, as Jackson claims, or the result of incompetent government policies and bureaucrats?

Admittedly, unlike Jackson, I haven't been jetting between D.C. and Florida, so I'm relying on press accounts. What's the best explanation for irregularities at polling places? To quote The New York Times, "the election system itself buckled under the weight of [unexpectedly] high turnouts." The voting technology may indeed be poorer in poor areas, but can this in any way be attributed to the nefarious designs of Republican operatives? Or is it the result of decisions made by local election officials who, as Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) told the Washington Times, are mostly Democrats?

The charge that police road blocks were set up to intimidate blacks is perhaps the most the most troubling one advanced, as it calls to mind a tradition of brutal, physical marginalization. However, Jackson's roadblocks in black precincts was actually a single roadblock two miles away from a polling place in the Woodville Baptist Church, where one-third of registered voters are black. While the press wasn't notified that it was going to be set up (as it should have been under police policy), it was part of a regular routine practiced by the Florida Highway Patrol. It is a very disturbing routine, but it had nothing to do with the election. According to APB News, due to lack of money for gas, the cops have quit driving around looking for motorists to tickets; instead they now just stay put and pick on unlucky drivers who happen to pass by, citing them for seatbelt, registration, insurance, and other violations. One hundred and fifty motorists were stopped on Election Day, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Twelve white drivers and six black drivers were cited. As for charges that blacks were interrogated by cops around polling places, this appears to be the result of a routine robbery investigation in Tampa.

The inaccurate purge of black voters from the election roles also has a less sinister explanation than racial malice. It is a unique and potent combination of private sector and government incompetence. After a Miami mayoral election in 1997 that had been tainted by fraud, the state decided to purge its roles of dead voters, felons, and others prohibited from casting a ballot. It contracted with a private firm who identified possible problem names and sent the list to Florida's counties. The counties then had to verify the information. It turns out there were many erroneous names on the list, including many names of blacks. But does this mean that blacks were specifically targeted? Maybe, maybe not. The husband of the press secretary for the election supervisor in Duval County was on the list. So was the election supervisor of Madison County, according to the Orlando Sentinel, which refreshingly doesn't identify their race or ethnicity.

Most of the other charges—people's names not being on voter rolls, voting lists not in alphabetical order, busy phone lines to central offices when trying to verify voter registration—are more likely explained by bureaucratic incompetence than racial malice.

Recall that elections are a local government responsibility, which means they are run at the level of other government services, for which the competency varies greatly from county to county, state to state.

To be sure, there's no excuse for voter registration cards not arriving at a historically black school until 2 p.m. on Election Day. There's no excuse for people who are registered and have registration cards not being on voter lists. There's no excuse for phone lines to election offices being busy, hence causing people to not vote, rather than wait hours for authorization. There's no excuse for many injustices in the world.

But the most likely explanations don't hinge on racial discrimination. This is something worth trumpeting, not denying.

In an election in which 900,000 black Floridians voted (that's 400,000 more than in 1996) and constituted 16 percent of the total electorate, charges of Selma, Dred Scott, and Plessy v. Ferguson are out of place. Before Jesse Jackson continues on his quest to foment racial strife in the name of racial justice, he ought to consider the words of Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings who represents a congressional district in Florida where turnout was heavy. "Is that a racial thing?" asks Hastings, who is black, in regards to the Election Day chaos in Florida. "I don't think so," he told the New York Times. "But is it something that had a cumulative effect and had an impact on the African American vote? I think that's the case."

Bureaucratic incompetence is always troubling, and never more so when it affects voters in the act of casting their ballots. But that doesn't mean it's racially motivated. Jesse Jackson ought to keep this in mind on the stump as he continues his quest to divide America.