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Southern States A ‘Breeding Ground’ For Hard Right Legislation


Southern States A ‘Breeding Ground’ For Hard Right Legislation

By Mark Hedin

In this year’s pitched battle for power in the United States, the gloves have come off in the Deep South.

At a mid-March briefing hosted by Alabama Values, organizers, and advocates from across the region told tales on their home states and discussed how to safeguard democracy and democratic principles.

“We are seeing the last fight and struggle of the Southern Strategy,” Ashley Shelton, of Louisiana’s Power Coalition, said, referring to the Republican political strategy to benefit their candidates such as Richard Nixon by harnessing white anger over Civil Rights Movement victories in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The event, “As Goes the South: State Legislative Edition,” was emceed by NAACP Senior Vice President Jamal Watkins, who led things off by describing how these states, fully controlled by Republican “trifectas” of governors and legislative majorities, “have become breeding grounds for policies that have had national implications, such as voting rights, criminal justice, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.”

“If you go to any Southern state,” he said, “you know that we’re confronted with a continuous and relentless onslaught of legislation that not only suppresses voters but is really about targeting marginalized communities.”

“We’re nonpartisan, but we’re not blind,” he said. “These attacks are not necessarily new, but they’re coordinated and relentless.”

Widening gap in voter turnout

Rhyane Wagner, of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said her views align with recent findings by the Brennan Center for Justice that nonwhite voting rates are no longer catching up to white voters’ participation rates, as they began doing after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. In fact, the gap has been growing for more than a decade.

She placed much of the blame on the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013’s Shelby v. Holder case – the “Shelby” being Shelby County, AL.

In it, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that, given Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, and nonwhite voters’ enthusiasm for his candidacy, the country had entered a “post-racial” era and that states with a history of discriminatory voting rules no longer needed to clear proposed rules changes with the federal government.

That decision set off an ongoing wave of new rules that have disproportionately curtailed nonwhite voting.

Watkins also flagged this year’s Alabama SB129, which limits diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education, state Representative Susan DuBose’s “What is a Woman?” measure, legislation limiting absentee voting and the state Supreme Court’s ruling on in-vitro fertilization.

“Let’s not mince words,” Southern Poverty Law Center Policy Director Jerome Dees said, “Our democracy is truly under attack.”

Comparing the situation to being the last one standing on one side of a game of dodgeball, with several opponents firing from multiple directions, he said, “this wave of legislation that we’re seeing is not just some happenstance. It’s a concerted effort being waged against these communities of color with the hope that we’ll just throw up our hands and say, ‘You know what? We give in.’”

A “fight for the lives of our communities”

In Louisiana, which already leads the nation in its incarceration rate, new laws require mixing convicted 17-year-olds with adults, add new limits to parole and early-release policies, and approve new capital punishment methods. The governor is also calling for a constitutional convention to revise the state’s foundational documents, without being clear about who will make the decisions.

Shelton pointed out that the lawmakers behind such wide-ranging proposals were themselves illegally elected, based on the Supreme Court ruling last year that the state’s electoral district maps discriminated against nonwhite voters and must be redrawn. However, it had allowed them to stay in place for the 2022 elections while it weighed the case.

In Mississippi, Kyra Roby of One Voice Mississippi said, lawmakers have fully funded the state’s “Adequate Education” program only twice since its 2008 inception, for a total of underfunding that’s now $3.5 billion.

Instead of finding resources for schools in the country’s most impoverished state, she said, lawmakers are concerned with “political talking points … under the guise of school choice” — what should and should not be taught, book bans, attacking diversity, equity and inclusion policies and advocating privatization and consolidation of schools, voucher, and charter programs.

“It’s not just a policy fight, it’s a fight for the lives of our communities,” Watson said, pointing out other research that found “if you were born into a working-class, it takes years off your life.”

Voting, said Steven Adelson, program director for Civic Tennessee, “is a social determinative of health.”

A “future that looks like our past.”

In Nashville, he said, “Last year’s Covenant School shooting has been completely swept under the rug.”

After their constituents overwhelmingly re-elected Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, two young Black representatives who’d been expelled for objecting to the GOP-dominated Legislature’s weak approach to tougher gun laws in the wake of that crime, the Legislature now is working on a new law that would prevent an expelled colleague from ever being reinstated.

Other laws passed in Nashville this year require driver’s license applications and tests be only administered in English, force students to watch anti-abortion videos in class, allow no exceptions to its abortion ban, and increase penalties for protesting.

“I firmly believe the South is chosen for a reason,” Watkins said. “Many of these bills are being tested for a larger audience.”

“But I will say, people are not taking this lying down.”

“Every right and freedom that I have as a Black woman was given to me by the federal courts,” Shelton said. “All of the things that they’re doing with policy right now is reinstating Jim Crow and the policies of the old South. It’s a gut punch that in 2024, Louisiana is facing a future that looks like our past, and not even our recent past.”

But, she said, “I’m not discouraged. My children will have more rights than I currently have. Right before you win, it’s always hardest. We must be consistent, keep showing up. If we let them win, we will never get it back. Don’t listen to the rhetoric, all is not lost!” (Ethnic Media Services)

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