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The legacy of Jim Crow is a cyst that must be treated before it can heal

January 20, 2019

By Carolyn Thompson

In the United States, more than 6 million people suffer from felony disenfranchisement; and 2.2 million of them are Black. On this National Day of Racial Healing, we must recognize that people of color are not given the chance to heal from their past. Many of our nation’s Returning Citizens are people of color who have been denied the right to vote, denied the right to serve on a jury and denied the opportunity to hold public office. Returning Citizens have to live with the constant reminder that their voice is silenced in the political discussion of their cities, states and the nation. The legacy of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics and felony disenfranchisement is a cyst that must be treated before it can heal.

Until 2019, Florida had a terrible system of felony disenfranchisement, which disproportionately harmed Black residents. Although Black Floridians only made up 20 percent of the state’s population, the Black Returning Citizens population hovered around 40 percent. The majority of Returning Citizens faced other challenges in their communities such as higher rates of child poverty. Not only were Returning Citizens denied access to the ballot box, but they were also prevented from improving the very communities to which they returned. Florida’s racist voting laws perpetuated a Black underclass for generations.

Former Florida Governor Rick Scott created additional hardship for Returning Citizens who were eligible to have their voting rights restored. His clemency board which held arbitrary decision-making power made the process so restrictive that fewer than 3,000 people had their rights restored. Without access to the ballot, many Returning Citizens of color were unable to vote out the leaders responsible for developing and implementing intentionally racist voting policies. In contrast, Charlie Crist, the governor preceding Scott restored voting rights of 155,000 Returning Citizens.

To shed light on this attack on the rights of Black Floridians, Advancement Project National Office released a report last year entitled, Democracy Disappeared. How Florida Silences the Black Vote through Felony Disenfranchisement. The report shows a relationship between the number of Returning Citizens permanently disenfranchised under current Florida law and poor socio-economic conditions in a neighborhood. Racialized voter disenfranchisement is the legacy of Jim Crow, and with the passage of Amendment 4 to the Florida State Constitution, reconciliation can begin.

On November 6, 2018, Amendment 4 was on Florida’s ballot – a successful effort to disenfranchise most Returning Citizens. While we celebrated the historic victory last November, we recognize that creating a more just society for people of color is now predicated on implementing Amendment 4, and registering the 1.6 million Floridians harmed by the former law. We recognize that the healing process has just begun, and we are committed to the voter education that needed to undo the historic harms committed against Black and Brown communities.

Cameron Burns, a senior at American University and a communications intern with Advancement Project National Office, co-authored this piece.