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Panel Addresses Racial Justice and Democracy

On Wednesday, March 11, the Clough Center at Boston College hosted a panel on the intersection of racial justice and democracy. The panel was hosted by: Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin; Rashaan Hall, Director of the MA ACLU Racial Justice Program; and Professor Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT. 

The moderator of the panel was Jordan Wilson, a BC student, Treasurer of BC’s Black Law Student Association, and co-founder of Politicking. Wilson provided each panelist with a few minutes to introduce themselves. 

Director Rashaan Hall began by raising awareness for the census to ensure a strong turnout. 

He described the census as “a robust process that includes as many voices as possible and increases access to democracy for groups who have been marginalized or underrepresented in the halls of government.”

Hall also pushed for the Voting Act to permanently protect the new voting opportunities put into place in response to the pandemic. Permanent mail-in voting and same-day registration are important mechanisms used to increase voting access and turnout. 

He concluded, “Even though Massachusetts is deemed or viewed as a progressive state, there are opportunities to improve and do much better.  That is the work of democracy.  One of the ways to do that is increasing access to voting especially among the disenfranchised, underrepresented communities.”

Professor Melissa Nobles began, “In the past, when we talked about authoritarian governments, the US was always the exception.”

However, Nobles argued the United States can no longer be considered an exception when segments of the population are disenfranchised.  

“The right to vote is a basic political right of what we think democracy is. It holds politicians accountable. It means they have to take you into account,” said Noble. “The institutions are important but there is also a commitment that the only game in town is democracy. For much of our country’s history, we have believed that to be the only game. I think the 21st century is making us wonder, is that so?”

Secretary Galvin further expanded on Nobles’ comments by highlighting that the past few years have illuminated the fragility of American democracy. Voters of color can be decisive in a vote and the country’s response to impede that should mean something.

“The idea that you give states money yet at the same time tolerate the willingness to curtail the rights of residents is not okay. This is targeted to discriminate against voters of color. The idea that we tolerate discrimination and still give states money is ridiculous.”

Wilson provided the panel with the first question: “There seems to be a long-standing argument throughout our nation’s history that we only want certain people to vote or that we don’t want misinformed people to vote. How do you feel about these claims?”

Hall responded, “Those claims are racist. If we talk about only allowing ‘informed people’ to vote, it turns a blind eye to the history of racism and oppression. It would incentivize keeping segments of the population under-educated.”

“The substantive issue of whether someone is qualified to vote is highly problematic. We should shun any notion of that concept. When we think about who is going to be disenfranchised by that mindset, it will be people of color, particularly Black and Native folks, immigrant populations, and overwhelmingly people who are poor,” added Hall. 

How can we call ourselves a democracy if we do not take into account the preferences of every individual who exists in our community? 

Wilson proposed the second question: “There is an underlying tension with the idea of capitalism democracy. Factoring in our country’s history of racial capitalism and exploitation, how can we make sense of this tension?”

Hall believes this tension is at the core of our nation’s identity. American history is shaped by those who have access to power, capital, and wealth. However, devastating our nation’s history reads, Hall is inspired by the recent protests.

“Think of the current issues people have taken to the streets to address: police violence, disparities in Covid deaths, and educational gaps that are exacerbated. A lot of these things are maintained by laws enacted by lawmakers supporting individuals trying to advance the framework of capitalism.”

Nobles directly called out the Republican Party for advancing legislation that is overly beholden to interests that are not of the general population: “a plutocratic agenda with a populous face.”

Wilson proposed the third and final question: “What policy changes come to mind to advance racial justice, equity, and democracy in Massachusetts?”

Secretary Galvin raised the concern that the Trump Administration pressured Massachusetts to discriminate against citizens of color during the process of redistricting. 

Echoing Galvin’s concerns, Hall argued it is vital that we remove as many barriers as possible to encourage participation in our political system.  

“Redistricting will create majority/minority districts so that people can live in districts that have a significant concentration of one ethnicity. Therefore, people of color can elect a candidate who will advance their specific needs,” said Hall. 

The panel ended with two questions from the audience about voting rights of those incarcerated and improving infrastructure within Black and Brown communities.

Secretary Galvin claimed the state of Massachusetts is working to allow incarcerated individuals to vote, whereas Nobles emphasized the unfortunate reality that public facilities are often overlooked when we think about the quality of life. 

Nobles concluded, “The Black Lives Matter protests in the 21st century makes us think about the unfinished business of civil rights.”

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