On the heels of Georgia’s passing of SB 202, lawmakers, public figures, and legacy media members have been quick to announce their displeasure with the bill. Vox has called it “a small-d democrat’s nightmare,” the NAACP has sued the state election board to prevent the law’s enforcement, and companies like Coca-Cola and Delta have caved into outside calls to condemn the bill. President Joe Biden himself has stepped into the foray, calling for the Major League Baseball All-Star game to be moved from Atlanta in an interview with ESPN’s Sage Steele. MLB eventually caved into the pressure and announced they would be moving both the All-Star game and the MLB draft out of Georgia. The most scathing criticism has come from Christopher Bruce, the ACLU’s Georgia Political Director, who has called the bill “Jim Crow 2.0.” The phrase has been used in headlines for the New York Times, and has been adopted by Joe Biden, who called it “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” But this isn’t Jim Crow at all: This is Spinal Tap.
Let me explain. A scene in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap shows guitarist Nigel Tufnel turning his amp all the way up to eleven, ostensibly louder than the traditional ten. “Turning it up to eleven” has since been a part of the English slang for going over the top in a loud and boisterous way. Turning it up to eleven is exactly what a majority of SB 202’s critics are doing.
What exactly was Jim Crow? Most people who have any memory of their American history classes would tell you that Jim Crow laws were a set of laws passed from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the Civil Rights Movement helped overturn them, and that Jim Crow was the system of racial segregation and racial oppression that was legally codified by southern states. It is, after slavery, the biggest stain on the United State’s image of being a country based on freedom and equality. The name “Jim Crow” refers to the racist stereotype of a lazy Black man who hangs around and can’t take care of himself. One of Jim Crow’s hallmarks was its voting restrictions. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries were only a few of the many different ways southern states attempted (and succeeded) to disenfranchise Black voters. I urge you to take the Louisiana state literacy test that was required for anyone who could not provide proof of a fifth grade education. I gave the test to my high school students when I was Student Teaching to see how they would do. No one passed, but not because the students weren’t smart. The test was written in a way that no one could possibly pass, and, if someone managed to pass, the questions were made to be objectively scored. To vote, one needed to earn a perfect score on the test. If you missed even one question, you were barred from voting. That is Jim Crow.
SB 202 is not Jim Crow. Some of the provisions of SB 202 include, but are not limited to: at least 17 days of in-person early voting access: early voting locations must be open for at least 8 hours between 8 AM and 8 PM: ballot drop boxes are now permanent and no longer a CoVid provision: applications for absentee ballots can now be done online: photocopies of ID are to be included and for those without ID, any official document with a name and address will suffice: and the processing of absentee ballots begins two weeks before election day and the total number of ballots cast will be announced at 10 PM of election night to prevent the mess that happened last go around. The provisions of the bill that could be viewed as “voter suppression” are the window to apply for an absentee ballot has been narrowed to only 67 days: government agencies cannot send out unsolicited absentee ballot applications: and money, gifts, food, and/or drinks cannot be given out by third parties within 150 feet of polling stations or within 25 feet of voting lines (self service water stations are allowed).
We can argue about whether or not those things are voter suppression targeted at Black Americans (I don’t think that they are), but saying that this is “Jim Crow in the 21st century” is not only wildly incorrect, it minimizes the actual suppression and oppression suffered by Black Americans under Jim Crow for almost a century. There will be no voting literacy tests in Georgia. Nor will there be poll taxes, white primaries, or any of the other nefarious tactics used by segregationist politicians throughout the Jim Crow era. But that won’t stop pundits, PACs, and politicians from pontificating on high about this week’s danger to democracy. Every issue is a crisis: every take must be more extreme than the last: everything, like Nigel Tufnel’s amp, must be turned up to an eleven.