Democracy can get a good person up in the middle of the night to read the newspapers online. When the news is bad, I fit a definition of literacy in the nineteenth century: someone has to tell me what is in the papers. Not long ago I was asking, How could Herschel Walker be one point ahead of Raphael Warnock in the race for the Georgia Senate seat? The world loves an ignorant, truculent Negro, Margo Jefferson said, especially the athletic kind. How could Brian Kemp be tied with Stacey Abrams in the contest for governor of Georgia? Some white people (and a few black men) resent a black woman whom they cannot patronize, no one had to tell me.
The history of my family in Georgia is one of trying to get out of the state. When my parents were growing up there in the 1930s and 1940s, colored people couldn’t vote in the primaries; elections were just exercises in rubber-stamping. In 1946 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in King v. Chapman a 1945 district court ruling that the segregated Georgia primaries were unconstitutional. Henry A. Wallace got 1,636 votes in Georgia when he ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. His tally was missing two votes, because my parents were no longer residents. A cousin in the NAACP had been assaulted trying to register black people. Strom Thurmond on the racist Dixiecrat ticket came in a distant second to Harry Truman, the Democrat. My parents remembered the name of Isaiah Nixon, murdered for trying to vote in Georgia in that election.
Though long gone from there, they paid attention to the South, the Old Country. In 1962 Martin Luther King Jr. said that a quiet revolution was taking place in Georgia. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had been carrying out a voter registration drive in concert with other groups: “First in Atlanta, the Negro vote joined with white allies casting our ballots in secret, and together we crushed a rabid segregationist and put into the mayoralty seat a white moderate.” Black people had a way to go and along that way there would be “arsonists, lunatics, and rampaging bigots to remind us that death lurks nearby.”1 King said he often looked at white churches and wondered what god was worshiped in such places. Lester Maddox, the segregationist who won a crowded Democratic Party primary and became governor of Georgia in 1966, said that God was his campaign manager.
Event after momentous event had my parents on the phone long-distance throughout the 1960s. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, there were only seventy-eight elected black officials in the South. And although twenty years later, after citizenship schools, voter education projects, freedom houses, and the number of black elected officials having risen to 5,160 nationally, black people were still only 1.1 percent of elected officials nationwide. Black people for the first time voted in higher proportions than white people in 1982. Voter registration rates among black people may have been going up anyway, but Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 drew more support among white people than anyone had expected a civil rights figure to.
Bayard Rustin argued in 1983 that mass protest against segregation had to be transformed into a larger movement for social and economic change. He was concerned that a black agenda would be too narrow on which to build a progressive coalition. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns brought out the most diverse electorate in US history up to that time. My parents cast absentee ballots from their nursing home and then died soon after the inauguration of the first black president, whose election meant something to them about the place of black people in the United States, even though they did not look to him as the solution to problems that they were sorry would outlive them. My father once said, back when it was so tiresome to have to listen to him, that our right to vote was the most precious thing he could leave us. The Union had been saved by the power of the ballot in the hands of black men, he’d been taught as a child of black people who couldn’t vote.
In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that removed federal oversight from nine states and parts of six others with a history of disenfranchising black voters. Clarence Thomas in a concurring opinion held that election oversight was unconstitutional, because discrimination in the southern states no longer existed. The evidence Congress had assembled when it last voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006 showed otherwise. Thomas has said that he wants to diminish the importance of electoral politics and the power of voting. Elections only confirm white power and black powerlessness, therefore black people should not participate. He claims to want to protect black people from the white state and to encourage racial self-sufficiency by limiting its involvement in their lives.2 At the root of Thomas’s arguments on voting rights is a false nostalgia for segregation as black separatism.
People in 1991 felt for Anita Hill, and maybe older black people thought that the scandal was degrading to her, too, but mostly it was a distraction from the main issue: Thomas’s woeful lack of experience as a judge and constitutional lawyer. Black people fell out with friends who insisted that because he was black, black people had to back him. Thomas considered himself betrayed by the NAACP’s opposition to his nomination. It gave white liberals and unions license to smear him, he asserts in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (2007). It is not a book you want to be seen reading. I almost ran after a young black waitress in Atlanta to ask her to let me explain.
Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, in 1948 and soon moved to nearby Savannah and a childhood of insecurity and hunger. His mother couldn’t support him and his little brother on her own. To be saved by his grandparents meant learning to bathe in very little water and with laundry detergent instead of soap. His grandfather slapped him for complaining he’d be late to his duties as an altar boy if he stopped to polish his shoes. When he was in the fourth grade, he started working every day on his grandfather’s fuel truck, denied heat in the truck cab and gloves for his hands. Moreover, he was called “ABC” in his all-black class—America’s Blackest Child. Once Thomas got out of Georgia, he never lived in a black world again. The scars of segregation are sitting on the Court.
As a member of the Black Student Union at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a white school he attended on scholarship, “I was an angry black man,” Thomas writes. He has claimed that federal policy designed to increase integration in higher education condemned black students to being always in a minority. He has further argued that integration was against the best interests of historically black colleges. His shame after taking drunken part in a riot in Harvard Square in 1970 showed him that he wasn’t in sympathy with the revolution, after all: “I promised Almighty God that if He would purge my heart of anger, I would never hate again.” Ayn Rand’s “radical individualism” made more sense to him than his left-wing friends did. Though he had every reason to be outraged by the experience of blacks in America, he had no right to confuse collective suffering with his own experience. We were “expected to be full of rage.” He didn’t want to play the angry role anymore. He said he’d rather have been seen as disadvantaged than black.
Thomas could handle being told that he did well despite being black, but not that he may have been accepted to Yale Law School because he was black. Affirmative action forced him to fight the perception in himself and in everyone around him that he was inferior to his white classmates. He did not believe he would ever escape the “stigmatizing effects of racial preference.” His anger was back. He was bitter toward bigots, of course, but also toward the people who pretended to help him but instead only hurt him, “paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them.” They slapped down blacks who forgot their place. Yale had been “a mistake.”
My Grandfather’s Son masquerades as a conversion narrative. Experience persuades Thomas time and again to set aside his received ideas as a black man, he claims: white society is not the source of all the problems black people face. He presents himself as bravely denouncing fashionable theories. The free-market proponent and anti–affirmative action black economist Thomas Sowell had considerable influence among black conservatives of the Reagan era, especially after he addressed the Fairmont Conference in San Francisco in 1980 and gave black conservatism an intellectually respectable image. Sowell’s many books argue that social engineering is not the purpose of government. Thomas was present at the Fairmont, already a Republican insider, an aide to Senator John Danforth of Missouri.
Black conservatives like to call attention to their persecution. They present the civil rights movement as a tyranny of thought that it takes a great deal of moral grit to stand up against. Thomas in his memoir is terribly aware of the price he has had to pay for his independence on black issues. He signed up to the right wing as if membership were a way to end his pain on more than a few fronts, like joining a cult. Thomas comes off as more well connected than gifted. He put together his career, his destiny, like the ants he used to watch. Crumb by crumb, he said.
In her essay “The ‘Pet Negro’ System,” Zora Neale Hurston observes that in the South, it was not uncommon for a white person who was not necessarily in favor of rights for black people nevertheless to have one black friend for whom no sacrifice was too great. Thomas despises the liberals who accepted his applications to schools in the Northeast. Worse things happened to him in Washington, D.C., than in Georgia; he was first called a “nigger” in Boston. He transferred his loyalty to the white people on the other side, complete with the old line that at least you can hear a Georgia rattlesnake coming. Is Clarence Thomas the revenge of the Pet Negro or the vindication of the Pet Negro System?
Stacey Abrams has squared off against Brian Kemp before: she narrowly lost to him in the race for governor in 2018. Kemp was at the time Georgia’s secretary of state, meaning that he was in charge of the election in which his name appeared on the ballot. Black districts experienced technical difficulties with voting machines; some had no power cords. Black voters stood in line for up to five hours.3 Georgia’s mandatory government ID law was struck down in 2006, but in 2017 its legislature passed a so-called exact-match law. Kemp held up 53,000 ballots in 2018, in effect purging the voting rolls by disqualifying people on the grounds that their names on the voter registration documentation did not match exactly their names on their government-issued IDs. Abrams lost by 54,723 votes. She alleged gross mismanagement of the election, and she did something about it.
Abrams, as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives in 2013, had founded the New Georgia Project in order to help people understand Obamacare. (She is no longer affiliated with the group.) Shelby County v. Holder added to its agenda the urgency of increasing the number of black people on the Georgia voting rolls. Defining itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, multiracial civil engagement organization, the New Georgia Project now has over 125 full-time staff and almost 400 part-time canvassers who help knock on doors. They are usually joined by many more volunteers. In addition, it has a few thousand volunteers from all over the country doing virtual phone banks and text banks. The group registered 800,000 new voters in Georgia in advance of the 2020 presidential election. Black voters now make up 29 percent of the Georgia electorate. Though his margin of victory was thin—11,779 votes—Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
To counter the exact-match law, Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project for the past seven years,4 used what she called “old-school data science,” matching “tens of millions of pieces of data.” Her staff requested the voter rolls of all Georgia’s 159 counties at different intervals during the election calendar. They then sent open-records requests to the secretary of state, the custodian of the official voting rolls. From there they matched the rolls and found who had been purged and for what reasons. Georgia is one of the states that still collect data about race when people register to vote.
They took the list of purged voters and matched it to the secretary of state’s list and then to each county’s list of registered voters, pulling out rates of registration by race and comparing them to the rates at which people were being disqualified. They documented the disproportionate rates at which black and Latino voters, women and femme voters, and people who changed their names were being purged because of the exact-match system. The New Georgia Project sued to have the names restored, but the state settled out of court, giving voters an additional year to prove their identities and to match what was on the secretary of state’s list.
Ready Set Vote (readyset.vote) is the New Georgia Project’s recently launched website for Georgia voters. “You put in your address and it pulls out your personalized ballot, a sample ballot for you,” Ufot explained. The website compares the positions of candidates on issues important to young voters and people of color. For example, they can see what Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock have said about criminal justice reform or climate change. The candidates’ Twitter feeds and websites have been analyzed, with an added visual feature: in addition to interpreting what the candidates stand for, there is a word cloud, and the more a candidate talks about a given subject the bigger the word gets.
The New Georgia Project has also released its first video game, a smart-phone app, This Is Not a Game. It is a tile-based matching game, similar to Candy Crush. The symbols refer to Georgia and the stories about the fight for voters’ rights. Two thirds of the people it registers have cell phones, not landlines, Ufot said, and play can be a learning tool. Eighty percent of black men and boys play video games at least three times a week. These days 50 percent of gamers are women. Gaming is a way to compete for “eyeballs and ears,” to help people to understand the power of their vote.
People are more easily persuaded by influencers on a given subject than by experts, Ufot noted. How people are learning about the world around us is important to understand. Disinformation is a poisoned well. We need to concentrate on questions about how we want to live, what our priorities are as a nation:
There are folks who believe that climate change is real and that we’re running out of time in order to reverse course. And so these folks are learning to fight for a narrative, challenging other narratives, wherever they are being circulated in mainstream press, online.
Although the New Georgia Project has knocked on one million doors since Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022, the aim for Ufot was not just to “hit their numbers” but also to let the community see them as a “political home, an organizing home, a place where they can find folks who share their values, who are thinking about the future of their neighborhoods, their school districts.” It is a way of answering the right-wing school-board-by-school-board takeover of many state governments, and to send informed and confident first-time voters to the polls.
Ella Baker’s idea during the 1960s was that political transformation is personal, that the essence of democratic activism is in showing up. Abrams was born in Atlanta in 1973, the year the city elected its first black mayor, and graduated from Spelman College and later Yale Law School. Ufot was born in Nigeria and brought up in southwest Atlanta. A 2002 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, she has a degree from the University of Dayton School of Law. For all its efforts to embrace technology, the New Georgia Project is a reconciliation of two strains in the grassroots tradition, the NAACP’s legal approach and the SNCC’s direct-action initiatives. Think of the cool of Diane Nash on the cover of Jet in 1961.
It is now illegal in Georgia to hand a bottle of water to a voter waiting in line at a polling station or to help someone to fill out a ballot if you have not been officially cleared beforehand to render such assistance. The New Georgia Project holds online training sessions for potential poll volunteers on topics such as how to be a water carrier and how to collect and track information that can lead to voter confusion. Early voting in Georgia surged before the primary last May, in spite of the Republican-controlled state legislature’s effort to suppress the vote with its 2021 Election Integrity Act, which gave counties the option of eliminating Sunday voting, among other things. Black churches were prepared to move their Souls to the Polls transportation services from Sundays to Saturdays but so far that hasn’t happened.
In 2018 Abrams raised more money than Kemp, and she has been outpacing him again this year. Warnock had been ahead of Walker in spending, but after the barrage of negative ads from both sides there seems to be some question as to whether Warnock’s lead in funding still holds. Georgia is a state where Republicans usually outspend Democrats. Small donations have turned out to matter more and to be linked to fund-raising mechanisms that Citizens United could not have foreseen.5 “I’m Stacey Abrams and I have an urgent request…”
Republican candidates in a battleground state like Georgia were in a difficult position for most of the summer: Trump wouldn’t forgive them if they distanced themselves from him, and they didn’t want to alienate the Republican base, which may have still been very pro-Trump. Kemp’s attempts to avoid testifying in the Fulton County district attorney’s investigation of the 2020 election epitomized the problem. Unfortunately the Republican infrastructure, the old machinery, is carrying him along, because no one on that side knows what else to do.
Ufot said her group still hadn’t heard back about the issues it had raised with the Department of Justice about the 2018 election. She says she welcomes a strong conservative party in the country that represents the interests of true believers. But the Republican Party has been hijacked: “They all capitulated. He got on TV. Called your wife ugly. Said your daddy killed JFK. It’s so ridiculous.” The greatest number of advertisements on Fox have to do with erectile dysfunction, she added. She doesn’t understand why we haven’t reached a public consensus that the Republican Party has completely abdicated responsibility for governing:
At what point are we going to just say that out loud and discount every policy proposal and everything that they say? Why am I listening to these fools? Why are we pretending that they are legitimate actors?
Ufot is counting on a galvanized, engaged electorate: “Roe v. Wade will have the streets on fire with white women and also people who care about our rights.” The Biden administration’s student loan jubilee is not nearly as generous as she wanted it to be, but it is more than any president has done for borrowers before. It has perhaps animated young voters. But if the worst that people predict about the midterm elections comes true, Ufot said, Georgia will be the exception, because of black votes. She said she hadn’t appreciated the depth of Trump’s relationship with Walker. But America could get its first black woman governor: “Because of our organizing we have a shot. They are going to try and steal it.” The challenges to the rolls in eight Georgia counties are clearly designed to disrupt the electoral process.
There is no point in making predictions. Do voters care about inflation or identity politics? Polling is flawed, Ufot noted, and rarely do we find a polling organization that properly samples people of color, which is why the New Georgia Project developed a model for how to find the newly registered: “I use [polls] as a compass, not as a GPS.” We say every election how crucial this one is, and that is always true. We say that to lose a battle is not to lose the war, but in the 2022 midterm elections something else is at stake: fascism in America is putting the hood back on. Maybe that is why the record for turnout on the first day of early voting in Georgia was smashed on October 18.
Adolph Reed Jr., in his memoir The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives (2022), contends that Jim Crow may be gone, but white supremacy, an ideology of fantasies, was never the whole point. Reed dismisses both the narrative that progress is inevitable and the “tendentious assertion” that nothing ever changes. While he does not belittle the victories of social justice movements, he contends that they left “the undergirding class system untouched.” Black people are now in socioeconomic positions formerly available only to white people and white people now occupy positions once identified as black, which demonstrates, in Reed’s view, how inadequate the “racism/ antiracism framework” is in trying to combat the inequalities that persist.
Yet a critical mass of white people—and brown people who want to vote with white nationalists—would prefer to wreck the country than see it work for others, a rage that seems to have become part of the collective unconscious. We are more likely now to discuss the illness of racism rather than the consequences of racism.6 A state law against including the 1619 Project in the public school curriculum sits as comfortably on the list of right-wing policies as anti-immigration absolutism. What some are referring to as replacement theory, the white fear of being outnumbered by nonwhites, has always been the most easily manipulated part of white American political life. Madison Grant in The Passing of the Great Race (1916) railed that the Georgia climate was too hot for Nordics anyway.
Perhaps there is a deep reluctance in US society to shake things to their foundation. We are afraid to expose too much, as though people would lose faith. But people have already lost faith. Perhaps New York attorney general Letitia James’s investigation of Trump could go some way toward repairing that faith, Ufot suggested. Conducting a broad criminal investigation and uncovering a conspiracy take time. They don’t have to move at social media pace, she said. Yet she isn’t waiting for people to be convinced by the January 6 committee’s findings. Though she doubts how “impactful” the hearings will be, unquestionably they had to be held: “Our superpower in this moment is memory. Remembering that January 6 happened.” It may not feel like a win to the average person, but maintaining our institutions is crucial to civil society: “It is not sexy; it’s not another stimulus check, but it’s necessary and we take it for granted.” The hearings in their grandeur and seriousness reasserted a commitment to democracy in the political mainstream.
When you don’t have children or students, you can lose your sense of where you are on the chain of being. In your head you are still in your insecure twenties; then you are startled when an actual young person helps you out at a ticket machine and selects “senior” without bothering to ask you. One day you are the know-it-all ashamed for having made an old person feel the shame of what had not been possible for black people when he was your age. Then you are the old person put in his place, licking himself. After talking with Nsé Ufot, I can find myself on the timeline of black history and face the newspapers on my own.
This was his Georgia, this his share
Of pine and river and sleepy air
Trump’s “war against the American system of government,” Masha Gessen says in Surviving Autocracy (2020), is built on four hundred years of white supremacy, the “fundamental structural state of exception that asserts the power of white men over all others.” Trump is not an aberration; he is the “logical consequence” of this history, as well as the result of the tendency of past administrations, including Obama’s, to concentrate power in the executive branch. “Trump calls out to the worst in his people,” particularly to those white voters who feel marginalized.
“Institutions will not save you,” Gessen warns us from the experience of having watched the institutions of Russia, Hungary, and Israel fold. But because of organizations such as the New Georgia Project, I don’t believe that Trump has extinguished the “language of solidarity” and the “idea of public welfare” in American politics, as Gessen claims. Marjorie Taylor Greene probably wants to live down her having presided over the chanting for Putin at one of her rallies in Georgia. I saw an ad from her Democratic opponent, Marcus Flowers: “Restore Sanity to Congress.” But the uncompromising mindlessness of the fascist lust for the destruction of American society is its attraction. You don’t have to be smart to vote, someone said.
Alex Garland’s upcoming film Civil War, shot in part in Atlanta and its outskirts, is set in a not-far-enough-in-the-future America. The story, he said, is about four journalists—two reporters, two photographers—trying to get across what is by then a war-torn country, from New York City to imperiled Washington, D.C. Garland said he didn’t want audiences to find any correspondences between the left-wing and right-wing divide of the present political landscape. Both sides have helped to undermine trust in representative government. He makes California and Texas a part of the same secessionist territory, in order to confound our current blue state/red state expectations and explanations. His aim is to portray what could happen—to have people ask themselves how to avoid deterioration into total violence. The polarization, the lack of communication, the extremism, the shutting down, the threat to free political life—it has all been accelerated by the degradation of what Garland describes as the centralist consensus.
And still they came, new from those nations, which was why even the cyclical view of history for black America was ultimately forward-moving in its back and forth. To form a more perfect union is to include, expand, add on. The progressive tradition I was taught at home and in schools in the 1960s assured me that the fringes in American politics were balanced, held in place by the force of a sensible, majoritarian middle. Radical reform may have slowed when it entered the American atmosphere, yet change for the better always arrived. What is the worth of that model in a society struggling over who gets to say what the norms are? While my white America slept, the pragmatic center was borne away and deposited in silt far from our anti-ideology homes. There’s no middle anymore; just one side or the other, and what was once fringe politically is now up front, pounding shields: reparations politics vs. restoration politics. To suffer these unregarded people to grow into the terror of the world.
—October 27, 2022
Martin Luther King Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity” (1963; Beacon, 2011), p. 70. ↩
See Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (Macmillan, 2019). ↩
See De’Ara Balenger, “Black Political Action,” in Black Futures, edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (One World, 2020). ↩
Ufot recently stepped down as CEO, and the New Georgia Project has announced that Kendra Cotton, the organization’s chief operating officer, will succeed her. ↩
See Daniel Q. Gillion, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2020). ↩
See Sander L. Gilman and James M. Thomas, Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity (NYU Press, 2016). ↩