Black America waits anxiously as race re-emerges in the US election

In Florida, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

After the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and Virginia, the eve of election day in St Petersburg, Florida has a more laid-back feel to it. But the naturally relaxed mentality of the Sunshine State does not hide the fact that the state will, once again, be the focal point of a presidential election which hangs on a knife-edge.

In the last 48 hours, Floridian politics has got ugly. Democrat party accusations that state Republicans have changed voter registration rules to make it harder for poorer people to vote have been bubbling just below the surface for months. But on Sunday, the Florida Democrats filed a law suit to keep polling centres open until election day to allow an estimated four million Floridians hoping to vote early more chance to vote. Since the administration of elections is all decided at state-level, there is nothing to stop state Republicans from making it harder for supporters of their opponents to exercise their democratic rights, whether by changing voter registration rules or having few and inaccessible polling centres in areas where opposition support is high. Given that these tactics make it harder for the poor to vote, and African-Americans account for nearly 25 per cent of the country's poor, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

It is interesting that race has suddenly emerged as a campaign issue at the last minute. Indeed, with the media's intense focus on the US economy and then the devastation of north-east America caused by Hurricane Sandy, one aspect of the race - perhaps even the elephant in the room - has barely been mentioned. Namely, can a black President be re-elected in a country that has become increasingly racist during his term?

For her part, Avis Jones-Deweever, director of the Washington-based National Council for Negro Women, thinks that Obama's re-election would be a bigger achievement than his win in 2008.  For Jones-Deweever, who describes "an amazing feeling of peace and unity" that she and the African-American community enjoyed at Obama's inauguration, the backlash started immediately after he took the Oath of Office.

There is also increasing evidence that levels of racial prejudice in the US are on the increase. A poll by Associated Press in October found that over 50 per cent of Americans held racially prejudiced attitudes.

So how has American politics changed to reflect this growing racial tension? DeWeever lays the charge of racism at the Tea Party movement which she says "has very overt racial overtones". She questions the Tea Party mantra "let's take our country back" - from whom, she asks. It is a fair question, particularly of a political movement that is overwhelmingly white. At the Republican national convention in August many observed that there were more African-Americans on the stage than there were in the audience.

She reserves particular ire for the thinly veiled racism of the 'birthers' who, despite conclusive evidence, still dispute Obama's US citizenship. Several weeks ago, billionaire Donald Trump launched yet another predictably self-serving broadside on the President, demanding yet further proof of Obama's birth certification.

"There is always an extra reason for you to show you belong", Jones-DeWeever says, commenting with frustrating that "black hands built the White House".

In a sense, conservative Republicans are right to feel anxious. It is expected that 2046 will be the year that America will no longer be a white-majority country, with the Hispanic and African-American populations on the rise. But Jones-DeWeever lampoons Republican attempts to stop African-Americans from voting, rather than changing their policies, insisting that conservatives across a number of states have attempted to enact laws making it harder to register to vote. There has been "a blatant attempt to reduce access to vote for non-white people", she notes.

Although there has been widespread criticism of Obama's record specifically as a black President, DeWeever insists that the African-American community is still very supportive of the President and have registered to vote in their hordes. Twenty four per cent of African-Americans live in poverty. Civil rights will certainly be eroded by a Romney presidency, she says. Meanwhile, the budget slashing plan of Vice-Presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Paul Ryan is "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor".

DeWeever says that it was "fairy dust" to expect Obama to pursue a specific 'black-focused' agenda but defends his record on job creation programmes that would disproportionately benefit poor Americans. Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has changed the nature of political discourse. Black people are "new to 'insider' politics", she says, "now we are in the the Oval Office we need to up our game".

But if there has been a mistake in the Obama strategy, a "lack of vision had been potentially the fatal flaw". There needed to be a Democratic version of the Reagan-inspired "morning in America" theme to this election campaign. It is certainly true that much of the gloss of the 2008 Obama wore off long ago, but there are few indications that black and brown-skinned Americans will not back their president enthusiastically on Tuesday. This time, with the national and Floridian opinion polls showing a statistical dead-heat, Obama will be more dependent on their votes if he is to cling on to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, with American politics as divided as it has been for a generation, black America must watch and wait anxiously for one more day.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer.

Supporters listen to Barack Obama during a campaign rally at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.