Color-Blindness is Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, and Grandfather Clauses (A Quick Thought)

poll tax

Article 12, Mississippi State Constitution (1890):

Sec. 243. A uniform poll tax of two dollars, to be used in aid of the common schools, and for no other purpose, is hereby imposed on every male inhabitant of this State between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, except persons who are deaf and dumb or blind, or who are maimed by loss of hand or foot; said tax to be a lien only upon taxable property. The board of supervisors of any county may, for the purpose of aiding the common schools in that county, increase the poll tax in said county, but in no case shall the entire poll tax exceed in any one year three dollars on each poll. No criminal proceedings shall be allowed to enforce the collection of the poll tax.

Sec. 244. On and after the first day of January, A. D., 1892, every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. A new registration shall be made before the next ensuing election after January the first, A.D., 1892.

These laws, along with other more nuanced provisions contained therein, effectively reduced the rate of African American voter eligibility in Mississippi from nearly 90% in 1890 to just under 5% in 1892—that is, in the space of only two years. Other states quickly followed suit, with Louisiana the first state to also adopt an additional provision, often called a the “Grandfather Clause,” to protect poor, uneducated, white citizens from the same disenfranchised:

No male person who was on January 1st, 1867, or at any date prior thereto, entitled to vote under the Constitution or statutes of any State of the United States, wherein he then resided, and no son or grandson of any such person not less than twenty-one years of age at the date of the adoption of this Constitution, and no male person of foreign birth, who was naturalized prior to the first day of January, 1898; shall be denied the right to register and vote in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational or property qualifications prescribed by this Constitution[…]. (State Constitution of Louisiana, 1898)

Question: do you notice anything conspicuously absent from these laws—laws which so effectively disenfranchised black Americans? Do we see anything like, “of African descent,” “Negro,” “Black Race,” “White Race,” “white male,” or similar, designations found in so much prior legislation? No; such references are completely lacking in all these Jim Crow “franchise” laws. Yet the effect was the near extirpation of the black vote in the South, and the emptying of state and national legislatures of African American representation. The gains made after the 14th Amendment had to be halted, but the language had to legally comport with “equal protection under the law.”

Here we have a prime example of color-blind legislation, containing literally no mention of race, that nonetheless had devastating consequences for black Americans. This is the pattern. We could argue that each of these provisions were quite reasonable, right? Should landless paupers be determining the course of a state or republic? (Poll taxes and property requirements). Why should anyone be allowed to vote who can’t even understand what they are voting for? (Literacy tests.) How can we deprive these great men who fought for this state the right to vote, or their children? (Grandfather Clause.) And further, how could any of this be called racist? There is no mention of race at all!

I pray we are willing to ponder such examples before we continue to press color-blindness, deny the existence of systemic racism, and scoff at claims of disparate impact.

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