U.S. lawmakers are introducing hundreds of bills to restrict voting and other civil rights

March 17, 2023, 4:55 PM UTC
African Americans, led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, line up in front of the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Alabama to register to vote.
Bettmann—Getty Images

Happy Friday. It’s time to do some regret management. Let me explain.

Right now, dozens and dozens of bills are making their way through state legislatures aiming to restrict the civil rights and well-being of people based on race, gender or sexual expression, and other forms of identity. They are uniformly dangerous, though many start as just an idea to kick around.

Here are examples.

As Tennessee lawmakers deliberated HB1245, which would expand options for executions beyond lethal injection, one such option to reintroduce firing squads became an amendment. Another idea came from Rep. Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta), who said, “Could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging by a tree?” 

After kicking around some Jim Crow nostalgia, Mississippi passed HB 1020 last month, expanding the police and creating an all-white appointed judiciary for the capitol city of Jackson, which is 83% Black. Every other district in the state elects its judges and prosecutors. “Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this…where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people,” Rep. Ed Blackmon (D-Jackson), told the local press. The bill passed after four hours of deliberation.

By the way, Tennessee has also passed more anti-LGBTQ+ laws than any other state in the country and is now the fifth state to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Building on that “success,” the state passed bills allowing state or other officiants to decline to perform or support same-sex marriages, and one that requires drag artists to seek a permit before performing. 

South Carolina is kicking around a bill allowing the state to execute women who have abortions. A similar bill, introduced by Texas last year, did not pass. But at press time, 21 South Carolina lawmakers were on board.

This is nothing new, of course. Lawmaking has always been a messy business, filled with fringe ideas that are often transformed in the unique crucible of public debate. And herein lies the problem: When fringe ideas become the law of the land, we are the ones permanently transformed, and not for the better.

The Indian Removal ActThe Chinese Exclusion ActThe many, many Jim Crow laws. Even the vaunted New Deal indelibly shaped American society by creating public housing specifically for white middle-class families who had become unhoused during the Great Depression, thereby segregating communities that had never previously been segregated. The many public debates on these bills were opportunities to weigh in, but those opportunities came and went.

We all live with the legacies of these legislative decisions, many of which have become invisible over time. But by paying attention now, we can shape a better future that we won’t come to regret.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Point

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The organization’s namesake, John James Audobon, was a naturalist, illustrator, committed racist, and enslaver. Does it matter that his name is on the door? After a lengthy and transparent consideration, Audubon’s board of directors voted to keep its name, despite the ugly association. “We are at a pivotal moment as an organization and as a conservation movement more broadly,” writes Audubon CEO Elizabeth Gray, citing a five-year DEIB plan. Is it possible with the Audubon name attached? “That is a question the Board has grappled with, and ultimately, they decided that the organization transcends one person’s name.”
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On Background

A word about segregation
If I could recommend one book or body of work that will put the danger of errant legislative action into proper context, it would be The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein digs deep into the history of segregated neighborhoods, and the destruction of Black, brown, and immigrant wealth and health that has long been enabled by lenders, realtors, and appraisers. This behavior was not, in fact, ignored by government bodies: They promoted it.

"The segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads...to stagnant inequality, because families are much less able to be upwardly mobile when they're living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent," Rothstein told NPR. "If we want greater equality in this society, if we want a lowering of the hostility between police and young African-American men, we need to take steps to desegregate." Looking for a preview? Find a conversation between Rothstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates below.

Parting Words

"I look forward to the last day Audubon's name is said."

—Tykee James, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Audubon Society, and one of the creators of Black Birders Week 

This is the web version of raceAheadFortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

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