Charge of voter suppression shows true racial animus
In his recent statement celebrating Black History Month, Mark Ojakian, the President of the Connecticut State University System, called on CSUS faculty, students, and administrators to consider what he believes to be the rationale for the celebration. He phrased his request in the form of a demand: “We must reflect on the legacy of systemic oppression on which the black experience in America was founded, and which, in far too many ways, continues to this day.” He went on to claim that “one of the most obvious examples of that oppression is the continued effort to suppress the power of the African-American vote through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other concerted disenfranchisement efforts."
But an abundance of evidence shows President Ojakian’s statement to be false. A study published in February 2019 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, using 1.3 billion "voting observations," makes clear that strict voter identification laws, which are blamed for the ostensible disenfranchisement the CSUS president decries, have not reduced voter turnout in elections in recent years, not even in the states that require a photograph for identification. The study concludes that "such laws have “no negative effect” on voter registration or voter turnout either overall or for any specific group, whether defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.
As for gerrymandering, Democrats in Congress, with the tacit approval of their Republican counterparts, have for years carved out “majority-minority” districts to maximize African-American representation.
Of course, statements like President Ojakian’s are not the only means by which falsehoods are perpetuated to the point where they are simply assumed to be true. In Georgia, for example, the losing candidate in its 2018 gubernatorial election, Stacey Abrams, who is black, continues to claim the election was stolen despite the fact that overall turnout in the state increased from 2.5 million in 2014 to 3.9 million, and that in losing, she received 600,000 more votes than did Nathan Deal, the winner in 2014, who is white. Voter turnout in Georgia in 2018 exceeded the national average, and the percentage of voters who were nonwhite was the highest in the history of the state.
Fortunately, the American people appear to be better informed in this regard than President Ojakian. A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 2012 showed that support for voter ID transcended racial, ethnic, and political distinctions: 66% of independents, 60% of Democrats, 65% of African Americans, and 64% of Hispanics.
More lamentable than the falsity of the facts President Ojakian presumes to be true is the implication in his statement — made clear by the inclusion of the word “systemic” — that the ostensible discrimination he excoriates is a manifestation of racial hatred of African-Americans by a white majority intent on perpetuating its supremacy and privilege. In reality, the only racial animus relevant to this assertion is the president’s implicit ascription to an entire category of people — rather than to individuals guilty of specific and demonstrable transgressions — of an effort to deny a different category of people their constitutional right to vote solely because of the color of their skin.
But what is perhaps most alarming about President Ojakian’s statement is its author abusing his authority as CSUS president to disseminate his personal opinions on political issues, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, which have nothing to do with higher education and on which he has no discernible scholarly credentials. He could have noted Black History Month, which as the head of an academic institution he is entitled to do, without insinuating that white people today are bigots and racists.
Surely the CSUS system would benefit if its president eschewed using his position as a pulpit and attended to the business for which he is paid a substantial salary by Connecticut taxpayers of educating the thousands of students enrolled in its universities and community colleges.
The sincerity of President Ojakian’s adherence to his political opinions and the passion with which he expresses them are laudable. All one asks is that in his official capacity he keep them to himself.
Jay Bergman is professor of History at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars.
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