Hileigh Mcdavid, 10, waves a small American flag in the air for Beto O'Rourke.
Hileigh Mcdavid, 10, waves an American flag during a Democratic debate watch party in 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Barack Obama was not the first African American president. Yeah, I know! I had the same reaction when I learned this.

It turns out that on Jan. 3, 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a wealthy African American from Virginia who settled in Liberia, was sworn in as Liberia’s first president. In 1872, he returned to office, becoming the nation’s seventh president. Liberia was the first African republic to proclaim its independence.

Coincidentally, that same year and on the opposite side of the globe, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and effectively ended the Mexican-American War. The treaty guaranteed U.S. citizenship to Mexicans living in the territories annexed by the United States. Despite being granted citizenship, English language requirements and violent intimidation limited their voting rights.

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The first time I remember being concerned about my rights was when I raised my right hand to join the U.S. Army. I heard some buddies say, “Once you sign that dotted line, you will lose certain rights as a citizen.” I’m not going to lie – at that moment, I paused briefly to rethink the decision I was about to make.

Then I recalled my current circumstances and the reason I was joining the service. It wasn’t the answer you usually hear about being patriotic and wanting to serve the country. It was simple: I was hungry and broke. For me, joining the military was less about service and more about survival.

Surviving is what disenfranchised people have done for nearly two centuries in Texas and across this country. From 1836, when the Constitution of the Republic of Texas made slavery legal, to 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and through today we have survived!

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was the very section that protected the Black vote against racially driven voter suppression efforts. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the case that struck down the formula used in Section 4 to determine which states had to get federal approval for election changes. Recently, Roberts has been on a peculiar liberal voting streak and speaks openly about protecting the Court’s institutional legitimacy against partisan politics. Nonetheless, he’s had a decade-long obsession with opposing the Voting Rights Act and once stated that voting rights violations “should not be made too easy to prove.”

I can imagine some of you are reading this and screaming at the top of your lungs in disagreement. I cannot say for sure that Roberts does not care about Black people, but I do know that there are laws that help Black people and laws that hurt Black people — and his opposition to the Voting Rights Act hurts.

Moreover, marginalized communities are still being denied their right to vote due to cuts to early voting and shutting down voting locations. Partisan gerrymandering has had a deleterious effect on the principle of democratic accountability and has effectively disenfranchised millions of Americans. Also, stringent voter ID laws have reduced turnout among minority voters.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, since 2008, states have passed measures to make it harder for Americans – particularly Black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot.

“As we look back just a few decades, modern-day voter suppression has swapped lunging dogs for restrictive voter identification laws and have tangled civic participation rules,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas. “We have also witnessed swapped poll taxes for quiet poll closures in Black and Latinx communities and swapped ‘whites-only’ establishments for 30-day voter registration deadlines. The tools have changed, but the reasons have not.”

Embarrassingly enough, I did not have a consistent voting record until a few years ago. Voting was never a topic of conversation in the communities I grew up in. My pathway to social change was paved when I became civically engaged in local government and active in the political process. That is when I truly understood the importance and impact that my vote could have.

Which begs the question: Why go to these lengths to deny voting rights?

I believe it starts with fear. These discriminatory tactics take place where marginalized and historically disenfranchised populations are large, therefore threatening the political status quo.

“Vulnerable populations, defined by such things as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability status, to name a few, depend on a majority group identifying the vulnerable as other,” said Johnelle Sparks, professor and chair of the Department of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “This allows for the majority group with control to create, support, and reinforce systems that limit access to resources. One of the problems with this approach is diversity does not enter the discourse to help shape ideas and make impactful changes for all; hence the vulnerable label is reified.” 

We are all citizens of this country but we face voter suppression at every turn. Regardless of the reasoning, the goals of these measures are clear: to silence voters of color and diminish our influence on political landscapes.

Therefore, it is critically important that we continue to recruit, train, organize, and mobilize disenfranchised communities of color. We need to keep applying pressure on the U.S. Senate to restore and revitalize the Voting Rights Act and make good on the promise of the 15th Amendment — that no citizen be denied the right to vote based on race.

Black people have built this country for free, and Latinx and other people of color have made immeasurable sacrifices for the growth and prosperity of this country. If respect is earned and not given, then we have earned our rights to citizenship and the sacred right to vote.

There are 96 days before the Nov. 3 election. The last day to register to vote in November is Oct. 5. Early voting dates are Oct. 13-30.

We should not only be encouraged to vote because it is our civic duty or because our vote builds a greater democracy, even though both are true. What we need to understand is that voting is about power. This power effects real change with the issues we care about and is our only mechanism to upend structural racism. When we as Black and Latinx people exercise our right to vote, everyone wins.

Demonte Alexander

Demonte Alexander

Demonte Alexander provides leadership for internal/external communication for Bexar Facts Public Opinion Research. Before joining the Bexar Facts team, Demonte served as Communications Director and Deputy...