What should be just a normal cycle of election-season mud-slinging is at risk of becoming overshadowed — rightly or wrongly, depending on your side – by the old specter of racial discrimination once predominant in, but never wholly peculiar to, the American South.
Senses and sentiments are heightened now, raw-edged on all sides. As a result, a significant portion of America – and the free world — may now be viewing us through a lens we’ve previously worked hard to cast into the recycling bin of history.
Many will draw no other conclusion from watching such things as news footage of a busload of African-American senior citizens turned back from voting in east Georgia last week. Whatever justification might exist for that action by Jefferson County officials, it will be dogged by a belief that the Old South we’ve labored to move past is rising again from a well-deserved grave.
That episode is not the only one called into question of late. Some 53,000 voter registrations are on hold in Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office because they reportedly do not exactly match other documentation. Justifications for “exact match” aren’t easily accepted by those who note that the great majority of the delayed registrations are from people of color. Lost is the fact that, with photo ID, those in limbo can still vote.
We can’t forget that optics matter, especially in hyperpartisan times like these. Even when comity’s the norm, perceptions drive reality.
We should not want to risk Georgia being seen once more as a backwater unsuited for the kind of investment that’s drawn jobs and people here in the decades since the hard-won progress of the Civil Rights movement began to blossom here.
No right-thinking, ethical person wants elections to be tainted by fraudulent votes or other chicanery. That holds true whether the suspects are murky foreign entities or activists seeking to drive the vote. We should all share an expectation that Georgia’s voting process is secure and that voters are who they say they are – and eligible to cast a ballot. Reasonable minds will differ on how exactly to achieve that.
We should not forget either the history of legal snares employed to deny the vote to African-Americans.
All of that’s hard to remember during today’s election campaign melee that sees both sides using current events to supercharge their voter base. As the rhetoric and dog whistles become sharper, we should reflect on how much is at risk.
The civility known as Southern hospitality is only part of what’s in jeopardy. Georgia has worked tirelessly to become a humming, modern state with a global footprint. We’ve seen the results in our booming private sector and the long-running growth trend of metro Atlanta. That progress is a direct descendant, we’d argue, of our bravely facing up a half-century ago to the old evil of legalized racial discrimination.
Such gains and the positive buzz they bring may be damaged by too many careless, tone-deaf or cynical missteps.
The legacy and memories of an unequal past are as real and deep-seated for many African-Americans and others as is the staunch desire by many white Southerners to not see disrespected the icons of the Confederacy’s history. In this sense, William Faulkner’s line that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is held equally firmly by both blacks and whites.
Our state will be under a global microscope until Election Day.
Georgia’s chosen the right side of history before, thanks to decent people’s sacrifices and courageous leaders of the past. We should now prove ourselves worthy of the legacy they’ve left us.
(Additional commentary on this issue is on myAJC.com.)