Why I Think 2020 is a Game-Changer for Systemic Racism and Voter Suppression

Kass Ottley, leader of Seeking Justice CLT, leads chants during a march through uptown Charlotte in response to the Breonna Taylor case in September. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin)

By Yolanda Peterson

October 29, 2020

A Johnston County candidate for town council says NC’s history of voter suppression and racism looms large in this election year. 

My name is Yolanda. I am an activist with the Poor People’s Campaign, a wife and mother. I am also the first woman of color to run for the Clayton Town Council in Johnston County, a county with historic ties to the radical extremist terrorist group, the KKK.

We can all agree that 2020 has been a crapshoot of a year. I keep looking at my Magic 8-Ball. When I ask my Magic 8-Ball when 2020 will get better, the only answer I get is “try again later.” 

The only solace is that 2020 is the year of perfect vision. It’s the year when we as a society can truly see the issues affecting us, where we have an awakening of engrained spiritual practices, and a return to our ancestral spirits for the strength to fight the ills that systemic racism has inflicted upon our state and nation.

Merriam-Webster defines systemic racism as  “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”

What that looks like in practical application is enslaving a group of people for hundreds of years (some until the 1950s). Declaring them as three-fifths of a person. Superficially giving that same group of people rights, only to enact Jim Crow laws that strip away any humanity of the group and effectively take back the rights that were “given” to them. 

Engage in genocide and domestic terrorism of that group. Then say, “Ok we will give you your rights for real this time, only to apply James Crow Esq. laws on the same group again by promoting redlining, segregation, racial profiling, gerrymandering, and voter suppression. 

But the ancestors are watching.

There is a belief that systemic racism only affects Black people. While it is often directed at Black people, and we do suffer from it greatly, systemic racism also affects poor whites, my Latinx sisters and brothers, and members in the differently-enabled communities just to name a few. 

Systemic racism creates a class dynamic that pits the haves against the have-nots. It influences many areas of society, such as the lack of expansion of Medicaid, pandemic response, education, access to quality technology during virtual schooling, the ability to virtual school during a pandemic, and most importantly, voting. 

But the ancestors are watching.

Here’s the thing, systemic racism is as American as apple pie. One of the treatments for this societal pandemic is voting. 

Voting is so important that for hundreds of years we as a people have had this right taken away from us with “surgical precision” (see North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory). However, with victories along the way such as the Voting Rights Act, we’ve also had generations of people enacting poll taxes, literacy tests, citizenship questions, ID requirements, and the dreaded “but for” clause in the 13th Amendment, just to name a few. 

But the ancestors are coming.

‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.’

An awakening is happening now. It is unlike any other in history. People are using their voices, people are coming together and they are not backing down. Statues are coming down and soon the statutes that held them and their systems in place will be too. Black people across America have realized that now is the time. Our voice nor will our vote be infringed any longer. As our ancestor Nina Simone said: “It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.”

Even though as Black Americans we face white supremacist attacks on everything from sleeping and driving to the right to vote, we hear our ancestor Sojourner Truth tell us: “We will come up again, and now I am here.” 

Yet, as this administration promotes the divisive rhetoric that labels us as lazy, exclaiming we need to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps, or that we are criminals and do not follow the laws therefore we should not have the right to vote, it also proclaims there is no such thing as systemic racism. 

We hear our ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer tell us: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” 

While this administration has infected the wound of racism, the injury was already there. And even as we fight the lie of massive voter fraud, illegal gerrymandering, and attacks on the credibility of vote-by-mail, we hear our ancestor Shirley Chisolm tell us: “We have been so patient and loyal … and what has it gotten us? We want our full share now.”

It’s that “Us v. Them” mentality that continues to tear apart our nation and prevents other people from seeing the truth. 

While they argue that systemic racism is not a thing, why is it that Black people have only had the “right to vote” for about 60 years? It’s been just 60 years since the Voting Rights Act. That’s 60 years of voter suppression, voter intimidation and the liquefaction of our vote by gerrymandering. 

It has been more than 2,600 days since the U.S. Supreme Court, acting under the delusion that racism no longer exists, weakened its foundation with the Shelby decision. And even during those 60 years, why is it that we make up about 30% of the population, yet we are in fact 60% of the prison population? 

In North Carolina alone, the court determined that those in power committed racism with such “surgical precision” that it infringed on the right to vote of Black people. 

Yet, the ancestors are gathering.

Systemic racism is so ingrained in our society and culture that when a group of people say, “Hey, I’m hurting over here, please help, please see me, my life matters too,” we are perceived as unpatriotic, anarchist, radicals that do not follow the rules and that threaten the American way of life. 

Even while evidence suggests that we rarely get a chance to follow the rules. When we do follow the rules, it can be to our own peril, as in the following examples: Philando Castile v Dylann Roof, Botham Jean v James Alex Fields Jr., and of course Breonna Taylor v Nikolas Cruz. These are just some examples of the disparity in the treatment of Black people when we follow the law versus when other people break the law. 

The other day while my daughters were in their respective virtual classrooms, my oldest daughter’s teacher talked about how slavery was over because of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. My 10-year-old daughter explained to the teacher how that was incorrect because of the “but-for” clause and all they did was build prisons. Of course, this threw the teacher off and they quickly changed the subject. But in that moment I saw a light, a glimmer of hope that told me that while 2020 is a frightening year, it has also caused us as Black people to collectively invoke the power of our ancestors to fight this battle. 

We invoke the power of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Daisy Bates, Shirley Chisholm, and North Carolina’s own Rosanelle Eaton to be with us as we battle systemic racism in all forms and to help America be what it promised it would be. 

We are “fired up and ready to go”. Now move out our way and watch us vote.


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