Tennessee voters went to the polls and decided to amend their state’s constitution, changing language that allows slavery as punishment for a crime. Residents of Alabama, Oregon, and Vermont did the same. It’s hard to believe an issue like this is still up for decision in the year of our Lord 2022, but obviously these decisions are good! Rejoice for freedom and all that. That is, until you take a closer look under the hood and realize the American state of affairs isn’t so promising.
Turns out, in some of the aforementioned states, this wasn’t the runaway victory some might’ve expected. According to the Tennessee Secretary of State, at the time of this writing, 20 percent of voters rejected the idea that slavery should be illegal. That’s 332,636 voters—enough people to fill University of Tennessee’s Neyville Stadium, the state’s largest sporting venue, more than three times. Foul.
Similarly, 638,825 Oregonians (46 percent) voted no, and 10.9 percent of Vermonters were against banning slavery. Alabama, which had a more comprehensive measure at stake to remove all racist language from its constitution, found disapproval by 23.5 percent of its voters. Sheesh! That means those people are not only fine with language that allows slavery but would also like to uphold text that permits poll taxes, segregated schools, and prohibits marriage between a “white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro.”
It gets worse. Voters in Louisiana, the only other state with slavery on its ballot, made their voices heard: Sixty percent opposed making slavery illegal. (To be fair, Rep. Edmond Jordan, the Baton Rouge House representative and legislative sponsor of the proposal, urged residents to vote against it due to ambiguous writing. He plans to resubmit a more clear version.)
People will justify and divert blame for African chattel slavery all day, but you’ll very rarely hear someone who isn’t on the fringes of society advocate for slavery in 2022. I guess in the ballot box, even more so than in the bottom of a wine glass, you'll find the truth.
It feels like you could learn something new about racism every day if you really wanted to. If you’re familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, or work from countless abolition scholars, you might be familiar with the idea that slavery is still technically legal in the United States. And you must be out of your mind if you didn’t think there are evil henchmen who still believe in this sort of stuff all around the country—in the deep South, Pacific Northwest, Northeast, all over. But to know that cohort represents a significant minority in at least four states is just… wow.
What’s in these constitutional texts, even if they're loosely or not strictly practiced, like, say, poll taxes, is important. After this midterm vote, two dozen states still have slavery language in their constitutions. With openly fascist leaders who embrace bold lies and conspiracies, no matter how bad things are right now, we’re constantly staring down the barrel of them possibly getting much worse.