WASHINGTON – Some of the nation’s most influential Black leaders on Thursday said many threats to democratic institutions in the U.S. appear to be aimed squarely at their community, including efforts to make voting more difficult, censor lessons around race and weaken social safeguards such as affirmative action.
They used a wide-ranging forum at the annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation as a call to action to ensure that the interests of Black Americans are not further eroded.
“The attacks on our democracy are happening on all fronts,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, president & CEO of the foundation.
She said they are grounded in “a racist view of America, and they all depend on misinformation and often downright deceit.”
Several members of the Black Caucus, along with voting rights advocates and community activists spoke about how mostly Republican-led actions to dismantle affirmative action in higher education, ban books in schools and restrict voting are particularly harming Black Americans.
As one example, they referred to the state and local controversies over critical race theory, an academic concept centered on the notion that racism is inherent in the country’s institutions. It has become a familiar talking point for Republican lawmakers across the country as they have restricted how race can be taught – even though there is little evidence that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools.
Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor who helped develop the concept, said it was part of a widespread attack on Black history, wisdom and knowledge.
“We have to recognize that what we’re fighting for right now is not just the next election or the election after that,” she said. “We’re fighting for our right to be here for the rest of this century and beyond.”
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation said 18 states have limited how race can be taught. Florida, whose governor, Ron DeSants, is running for the GOP presidential nomination, has made headlines around its efforts to curb how schools teach about race and to block Advanced Placement courses on African American studies.
Several speakers also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year ending affirmative action in college admissions. That is forcing campuses to look for new ways to diversify their student bodies.
Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called out what he saw as a double standard, with the end of affirmative action but the continuation of so-called legacy admissions, the practice of favoring applicants with family ties to alumni.
“We fought for it because we know that it’s not a handout,” Hewitt said of steps to boost minority enrollment. “It’s what we deserve.”
Several leaders also cited efforts at the state level since the 2020 election to make voting more difficult, steps in mostly Republican-led states that have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and drawn numerous lawsuits.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, drew on the struggle for civil and voting rights as inspiration to push back harder against restrictive laws and to expand the ability to vote. She noted how Black Americans had once been denied even the ability to learn to read and write.
“And in this country, power is not something that is earned. You’ve got to take power in this country,” she said. “We’re operating in this political context like we’re not fighting for our very lives.”
Virgin Islands Rep. Stacey Plaskett spoke out against attacks made by many Republicans against the country’s core institutions, especially calls to dismantle the Justice Department in the wake of charges brought against former President Donald Trump, including those related to his attempts to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election.
She said the attacks on fundamental pillars of democracy and the suggestion that some people should not be held legally accountable were creating widespread distrust in the federal government and deepening the political divide.
“We can’t have that,” she said.
The Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.