Making race the issue in restoring vote to felons

April 13, 2002|By GREGORY KANE


Or is it? Maryland's black legislators cynically played the race card in the session that just mercifully ended. In an attempt to cram voting rights for convicted felons down the throats of Marylanders of all races, black legislators tried to turn the matter into a struggle for civil rights.

The state Senate passed a bill that would restore voting rights to convicted felons who committed nonviolent crimes. The House of Delegates had no cut card. Legislators there passed a bill that would restore voting rights even to those who committed violent crimes.

In a Senate debate on the issue reported by Sun staffer Tim Craig, Joan Carter Conway, an African-American senator from Baltimore, told her colleagues, her city, her state and the world that "we don't want to go back to Jim Crow. We don't want to go back to poll taxes. We don't want to go back to literacy tests."

She was not pleading for oppressed and beleaguered blacks in Mississippi or Alabama circa 1960, who did indeed face not only literacy tests and poll taxes, but certain death if they tried to register to vote or urge others to do so. Conway was talking about those blacks who had been convicted of two or more felonies. They were the ones she was so impassioned about. Her plea doesn't exactly conjure up images of those blacks who were mercilessly clubbed into submission by state troopers for trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge outside Selma, Ala., in 1965.

(Oh, by the way, Senator Conway, poll taxes are forbidden by the 24th Amendment. You could look it up. "We" couldn't go back to them unless the amendment was repealed, which is not only unlikely, but darn near impossible.)

Several of Conway's black senate colleagues were as impassioned, and, in the end, every bit as demagogic. There is nothing in the repealed Maryland law banning twice-convicted felons from voting that is race-specific. By making it a race issue, the black senators were saying, in essence, that crime is a black thang.

Now, two things happen when conservatives point out the disproportionate number of blacks involved in crime. The white ones are dismissed as racist. The black ones are called a list of names. Uncle Tom is at the head of the list, with Handkerchief Head and Sambo in there somewhere.

What do we call a bunch of black liberal Democrats when they say the same thing? They would call themselves staunch advocates of civil and voting rights. They would say they aren't playing the race card or being demagogic and that no one should cry "Foul!"

Maybe they're right. Perhaps we shouldn't cry foul. Maybe we should thank these folks for confirming that young black men do, indeed, commit serious crimes way out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

That's not news. W.E.B. Du Bois, African-American scholar, historian and co-founder of the NAACP, said the same thing in the early part of the 20th century, and this guy - far from being a black conservative - was a commie, for heaven's sake.

"Negro crime is a dangerous and threatening phenomenon," Du Bois and other black scholars wrote in a statement at the Ninth Atlanta Conference on Negro Crime in 1904. "It means large numbers of the freedmen's sons have not yet learned to be law-abiding citizens or steady workers, and until they do, the progress of the race, of the South and of the Nation will be retarded."

That's why you would never see the NAACP of the Walter White or Roy Wilkins era advocating the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons. That's why when Claudette Colvin, a pregnant teen-ager in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person nine months before Rosa Parks did, the NAACP didn't make an issue of it. The organization considered image just that important.

It's quite the pity that some black legislators in Maryland aren't as image-conscious. By making a race issue of restoring voting rights to convicted felons, they've once again convinced many that liberal black Democrats - and probably blacks in general - are soft on, or sympathetic to, criminals. Maybe in the next legislative session, these senators can focus on why those young black men who commit crime so disproportionately do so in the first place. One hint: It's not white racism.

Or perhaps in the next legislative session, black legislators will do something for all those African-Americans who are victims, not perpetrators, of crime.

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