Two Cheers for American Democracy

The recent scenes of mob rule in Washington DC have sent shockwaves around the globe, and have been met by statements of disbelief and disapproval from world leaders. The condemnation of the insurrectionists by leading Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, and the subsequent congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president, have provided a welcome, and necessary, reaffirmation of constitutional propriety.

At the same time, the occupation of the capitol building notwithstanding, more than half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and eight Republican senators still voted to block Biden’s election. Subversion of the democratic process is also nothing new in the American political tradition.

From the 1870s through to the 1960s African Americans in the southern states were systematically denied the right to vote. Not by racist white mobs, but by state laws linking voter registration to poll taxes, literacy tests and ‘good understanding’ clauses.  As late as the 1950s and 1960s African Americans in Mississippi were asked questions like ‘How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap’ to demonstrate they were fit to register to vote.

Such injustices were finally ended by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which introduced strict federal government oversight of the qualifications states could impose for voter registration. The results were dramatic. In Mississippi black voter turnout rose from just 5 per cent in 1964 to 59 per cent by 1969.

In Shelby County v Holder (2013) the conservative dominated United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that the Voting Rights Act was a historical anachronism, and that the safeguards it put in place no longer needed to be enforced. Within 24 hours of the decision Alabama, Mississippi and Texas introduced strict voter ID requirements that have since been adopted by more than thirty other states.

Such measures are justified as necessary to prevent voter fraud. In practice they have resulted in widespread voter suppression in ethnic minority communities. 25 per cent of African Americans do not possess government issued photo ID cards compared to only 8 per cent of white Americans. Voter restriction was further reinforced by other measures, including the redrawing of electoral districts to minimize the impact of non-white voters, and closing polling centres in African American communities. Regular purging of the electoral roles led to the de-registration of voters on minor technicalities or because they hadn’t voted in recent elections.

In the 2016 presidential election national voter turnout fell to 56 per cent compared to 64 per cent in 2008 and 60 per cent in 2012. In 2017 African American and Latino voters were three to four times as likely to report facing racial discrimination as white Americans during the electoral process.

But hope remains. In 2020 the polarising nature of the Trump administration energised not just his own supporters but those who opposed him. National voter turnout rose to 67 per cent, comparable to that in the 2019 UK general election. The COVID pandemic also encouraged voters to take advantage of opportunities provided by states for early voting and postal voting. Measures that, needless to say, President Trump firmly opposed. The result – two Democratic Senators in Georgia. What will happen next?

Kevern Verney is Professor of History and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Edge Hill University.


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Racism and Me!

Black Lives Matter has been thrown into the news and all our consciousness following yet another black man’s death in the USA due to Police brutality. This has triggered a global reaction expressing the frustration of those who don’t feel that they are listened to.

Having been brought up in St. Helens after the war, I can honestly say the only minority ethnic people I experienced in my youth, apart from the staff at the Chinese Restaurant,  was a family up the road whose father was white and mother Asian. All I can remember was thinking how handsome their sons were and how beautiful their daughters. I never really thought about it otherwise.  

In the 60s though I would hear and tell all the ‘in’ jokes deriding black people along with the IRA and others whom we feared. Much later I visited apartheid South Africa to hear the very same jokes aimed at the ANC by white South Africans whilst some of our politicians labelled Nelson Mandela a terrorist. I was appalled by what I saw and became an avid anti-apartheid supporter on my return.

Working then in a West Midlands borough with a 20%+ minority ethnic population my work exposed all the racism that was etched in my mind through UK biased history lessons at school without a mention of Black History or the engagement of Commonwealth troops alongside my father during the war. The media’s negative portrayal of failed African leaders, crime in the black community, Islamic bogey men and mass immigration did not match up with the people I met with regularly.  These were worthy, able and committed community and religious leaders from across the Commonwealth and elsewhere who were proud appreciative citizens of the town and the UK.  Yes, we had our issues but we worked hard to work together for good.

As I was wrestling with my ‘built in’ racism, I went to Croatia during the Bosnian conflict with an aid convoy team from the town led by the emergency services. To see the Mosque in close proximity to the Catholic Cathedral and the Orthodox Church in Zagreb and then go and see how the Balkans was being torn apart in a hateful way whilst those three communities Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, supposed members of those three faith communities, attacked each other mercilessly. I was devastated by the hate being generated in that conflict and the animal instincts highlighted by the wrong sort of nationalism, greed and racial and religious stereotypes.

I’m still struggling with my racism but am completely committed to its eradication as my faith, my conscience and my conviction grows about us all being citizens of the good world that God created.

John Davis is Assistant Priest at St. Gabriel’s, Huyton and an ISR Visiting Fellow


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Totem and Taboo: UK Television Comedy in the light of Black Lives Matter

While our lives have been upended by the pandemic, the outrage triggered by the killing of George Floyd has drawn vital attention to the global scourge of racism. The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has been immediate and spectacular. Protesters around the world have braved Covid-19 to amplify their anti-racist message.

In the UK, a totemic moment occurred as a controversial statue to slaver Edward Colston was torn from its pedestal and thrown into Bristol Harbour. This has prompted debate around the role and meaning of public art – one that will likely gain traction as it will provide a distraction from the politics of coronavirus.

Black Lives Matter has provoked an international reckoning in the creative industries. Apologies for intolerance and systemic racism have been issued from firms, institutions and individuals, from Anna Wintour of Vogue to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

There have also been highly publicised statements of regret from comedians and light entertainers for past racial insensitivities. Jimmy Fallon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain, and Leigh Francis of Bo Selecta have apologised for previously performing in blackface.

Each celebrity makes clear that this was a different time, that they would make better choices now. This rings false. Unlike the Colston statue, Bo Selecta and Little Britain are recent cultural artefacts. While our understanding of social injustice may have evolved, the 2000s was hardly an era where racist representation went unchallenged. The offence caused by Bo Selecta and Little Britain (Malik, 2010) was noted at the time.

It was reported by those directly affected by it: black performers like Craig David and Trisha Goddard whose personal lives and careers suffered as a result of Francis’ caricatures. Caricature attacks the individual, but also paradoxically makes them recognisable, through the grotesque distortion of physical appearance. In Bo Selecta, this was combined with racial stereotyping. Goddard noted that this emboldened people’s casual racism towards her and her family.

Comedy’s theorised function of providing a ‘release valve’ for social taboos has been used to defend comedic use of stereotypes, including blackface. A familiar answer to complaints of misrepresentation is to assert oversensitivity, the unwillingness to take a joke. Yet, being the butt of a joke is disempowering and has a negative cumulative effect on personal and collective self-esteem. A better use of caricature is to subvert stereotype, to punch up rather than down.

The apparently sudden realisation of blackface’s unacceptability has prompted the removal of comedy series such as The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen from Netflix and Little Britain from iPlayer. Removing content like this, or Gone With The Wind from public circulation is a flimsy, tokenistic gesture, a means of skirting rightful critique of these representations and the industries that produced them. Allowing cultural debates to centre on relics of racial injustice, even recent ones, runs the risk of overshadowing the more discreet, more crucial work of dismantling systemic racism.

Dr Hannah Andrews is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Refs: Malik, S. (2010) ‘How Little Britain ‘does’ race’ in Lockyer, S. (ed) Reading Little Britain: Comedy Matters on Contemporary Television. London: I.B. Tauris, 75 – 94.

Related post:
A note from the editor: Black Lives Matter


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