While American families are trying to get through the day, struggling to pay their bills, while navigating the latest strain of COVID and what that means for their schoolchildren, the Senate toys with the Build Back Better Act. As individual members contemplate whether child hunger or the climate crisis is worthy of their consideration, there is another vital matter at hand.
The future of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act hangs in the balance. Passage requires the votes of 60 Senators, based on the filibuster rule, rather than the measure of a simple majority.
A primer: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 expressly prohibited racial discrimination in casting individual ballots across the nation. The violence of the 1960s that met African Americans when they attempted to vote included water hoses, snarling dogs, and armed police officers. Poll taxes and literacy tests were other methods used to disenfranchise potential voters.
The Civil Rights Act corrected a slew of wrongs. As President Joe Biden qualified in his visit to Atlanta on Tuesday, January 11, those “anti-democratic” measures were “unAmerican.”
Yet, in 2013, these regulations were blown up by the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder. Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote, which has since paved the way for an eruption of nationwide bills facilitating individual states, secretaries of state, and others to plunge a dagger into the heart of voting rights.
Which demographic groups are the most egregiously impacted? Unsurprisingly, people of color and Native Americans are at the top of the list. These communities are also fighting to keep polluting industries out of their neighborhoods, to overcome the residual impacts of red-lining, and to clean up a high rate of unresolved Superfund sites. A combination of these factors results in elevated levels of asthma, respiratory and heart disease, cancer, and cognitive development in children.
Heather McTeer Toney told Politico in July 2021, “We know Black and brown people are more likely to vote for the policies that we really need to save our environment… An attack on voting rights and attempts for voter suppression [also] equates to voter suppression for the climate community.”
Perhaps those who are working to suppress the vote have been reading the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication findings. The research documented has shown that “Hispanics/Latinos (69%) and African Americans (57%) are more likely to be Alarmed or Concerned about global warming than are Whites (49%).”
Why? Because environmental risk factors, ranging from air pollution exposure to toxic facility sitings, disproportionately impact people of color. These populations also have fewer resources to respond to climate catastrophes and are the last to recover from economic losses.
It isn’t difficult to connect the dots on why certain statehouses are looking to promote barriers to voting that will impact these targeted constituencies.
During their trip to Atlanta, President Biden and Vice President Harris addressed this renewed attack on the core of American democracy—the right to vote. Harris pointed out, “Anti-voter laws are nothing new.” Biden spoke about “Jim Crow 2pt0” and referenced the almost 34 laws in 19 states restricting the right to vote as “election subversion.” (There are more than 150 additional pieces of legislation underway around the country.) He underscored that all other rights flow from voting rights.
It’s an overwhelming time. Seeing elected representatives trying to turn back the clock to when individual state statutes severely impeded the ability to vote is unimaginable. But it’s happening.
I reached out to Dr. Bob Bullard, a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council member, to ask him about the current situation. He responded via e-mail:
“The struggle for environmental justice grew out of the modern civil rights movement’s assault on systemic racism. America is segregated, and so is pollution. The same racist and undemocratic forces that allow communities of color to be disproportionately poisoned are also implicated in disproportionately suppressing Black and Latino voters and subverting our democracy. Dr. King said it best, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ It’s time to make 2022 the Year of Justice for the environment to civil rights to voting.”
Every American must be proactive in protecting the right to vote and the right to a clean and safe environment for all citizens.
Heeding the recent words of the President: “We must be vigilant. The world is watching. They’re watching American democracy to see if we can survive the moment.”