In the United States, we are all trying to decipher the messages sent us by the resounding election victories of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. While the election’s handwriting on the wall will continue to be interpreted in different ways as in Daniel chapter 5, one area of the message is certain. As much as we try to ignore or put it behind us, mistrust, fear and abuse of the Other (persons of other races and nationalities) continue to threaten the rule of democracy in the United States.
Here in Kansas City, the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the African American baseball players who never made it to the major leagues of the “great American past time” not because they didn’t have the talent but because of their exclusion from U.S. professional teams until the year 1947. The Kansas City museum also honors the memory of those white players who in the winter off season during the years of segregated baseball played on teams outside the country with black players.
Surprisingly, some of those white players, like the brothers Paul and Dizzy Dean, had grown up in the fiercely segregationist southern states which enforced separation of the races in their territory. For some of the whites like the Dean brothers, the wintertime move to Mexico, Cuba and other nations of the Caribbean was motivated by the desire to play baseball against and with the best U.S. players, whether black or white.
For the African American players, leaving their home country to play baseball brought benefits the whites took for granted in the U.S. As the black player Willie Wells said of playing ball in Mexico, “We live in the best hotels, go to the best restaurants, and can go anywhere we care to. We don’t enjoy such privileges in the United States.” In short, Wells and the other African Americans found “respect, freedom and democracy. In Mexico.”
Today of course, professional sports teams in the United States are fully integrated and black players excel. But the recent election provides additional evidence of a strategy to restrict if not suppress the rights and the impact of African American and other voters in U.S. elections. Anti- democratic voiding of the ballots of several thousand black voters in Florida in the 2000 presidential election put us on notice. Since then we have learned of defective voting machines, closing of polling places, new voter identification requirements, redrawing of voting districts in the states, and new voter registration procedures all implemented within states, in the south and the north, controlled by Republican legislatures intent on limiting the impact of the increased numbers of persons of color in American elections.
One of the most troubling aspects of the past election is summed up by the observation made by one U.S. political scientist who said, “this is the first election held in this country without the full protections of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965”. One way to better understand the importance of this statement is offered by viewing the 2014 film “Selma”.
This film recounts the history of the struggle for African Americans’ right to vote in southern states. For decades since the Civil War southern politicians had devised various ways to deny African Americans the right to vote. Now in our day, the 1965 Act that prohibited such practices has been weakened through devious legislative maneuvers in many states of the U.S.
What might the long term effects on American democracy be if such practices continue and a wall is built between persons of color and the U.S. polling place? Let me share a story, a kind of parable, that suggests what we might be in for.
In the mid 1970’s a friend here in Kansas City played basketball for one of Kansas’ community colleges. The team had black and white players on it and had a couple of games against teams in the southern State of Texas. When they got to the small town’s biggest restaurant the black players were told, and this only forty years ago, that they would be served in the room behind the kitchen.
My friend and the other black players went to the back room and enjoyed meeting the entirely black kitchen staff and eating what they cooked for them. Their portions were more than ample and the kitchen help offered to make the leftovers into sandwiches for the team’s trip north. That night some of the white players got to sample what their black teammates had eaten. When they returned to the same restaurant after the next day’s game all the white players told the coach they wanted to eat the better food and bigger portions provided in the back room too.
The story suggests what this country will lose if the campaign continues to limit or exclude the human rights of segments of the population. Not only will citizens of the nation, of all ethnic backgrounds, be deprived of the best a democracy offers. The image of the U.S. as a bastion of democracy world wide will be malnourished. And this means we all will suffer the consequences.