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Justice for Black voters? Or rap songs and sneakers?

The Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act has led to a host of gerrymanders and restrictive voting laws and policies

Vice President Kamala Harris (second from left), second gentleman Doug Emhoff (right), civil rights attorney Ben Crump (second from right) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (left) join a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a commemoration of the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., on Sunday.
Vice President Kamala Harris (second from left), second gentleman Doug Emhoff (right), civil rights attorney Ben Crump (second from right) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (left) join a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a commemoration of the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., on Sunday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris marked the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., this past Sunday, joining in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, re-creating the steps of the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other leaders and citizens demanding the vote.

On March 7, 1965, that group was stopped by violence meted out by law enforcement, but their well-publicized bravery surely shamed the country and Congress into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that August.

Why then, did the vice president’s message speak so much of work to be done? As she said: “Today, in states across our nation, extremists pass laws to ban drop boxes, limit early voting, and restrict absentee ballots. … Across our nation, extremists attack the integrity of free and fair elections, causing a rise of threats and violence against poll workers.”

Since 1965, provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been chipped away, with a majority-Republican-appointed Supreme Court declaring racial discrimination over in the 2013 Shelby case, and GOP-majority states anxious to prove them wrong, falling over themselves to gerrymander and enact restrictive laws.

A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that the racial turnout gap — the difference in the turnout rate between white and nonwhite voters — has consistently grown since 2012 and “is growing most quickly in parts of the country that were previously covered under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” which forced jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to “preclear” changes in voting policy with the courts or Justice Department.

In Alabama, it took lawsuits to gain an additional U.S. House district, in time for this week’s primary, and one that would give Black voters a fighting chance. This is in a state where African Americans make up 27 percent of the electorate but where just one majority-Black district is currently represented by Rep. Terri A. Sewell, a Black Democrat, in a seven-member delegation.

Sewell was with Harris on Sunday, though she didn’t have much company from Republican House colleagues. In the past, Democratic and Republican members of Congress put aside differences to honor the moral rightness of the marchers’ cause and walk side by side.

Not today.

All this doesn’t mean politicians of every affiliation don’t crave the support of minority voters. With reports and polling on the number of Black and Hispanic voters who seem to be turning away from President Joe Biden and giving former President Donald Trump, Republicans and third parties a second look, the race is on for any constituent who may make the difference in November.

But instead of courting minority voters with policies that would, say, grace them with a sip of water or a snack while waiting in long voting lines (looking at you, Georgia) or stopping poll observers from peeking over shoulders to catch nonexistent skullduggery (part of new rules in North Carolina), some are taking a different approach.

Why not roll out the “bling,” including incredibly tacky, $399 high-top golden sneakers?

Trump has not done much to convince that his view of African Americans has progressed since his family’s real estate company was sued in the 1970s for blocking them from renting apartments or he was calling in 1989 for the death penalty for five young Black and Hispanic men accused — falsely, it turns out — of raping a jogger in Central Park.

He sure seems to associate Blackness with criminality. Why else would he have told a South Carolina gathering of the Black Conservative Federation that Black Americans relate to him because of his indictments, or that we find his mugshot splashed across shirts stylish.

Some Trump supporters, according to a BBC Panorama report this week, have even been manufacturing AI-generated fake images of Black folks crowding around Trump and having a great time — insulting disinformation at its finest.

Expect more of the same, particularly in swing states.

And we have a new entry from independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who apparently is hoping to gain traction with — a rap song?

Not that I’m a music critic, but the 3 minutes, 43 seconds I spent listening to “Standing on Bidness” seemed a whole lot longer, and I suspect Kennedy’s attempt to attract the “urban” voter won’t make much of a dent. In fact, if he says “bidness” in front of the wrong audience, he might lose more votes than he attracts.

Watching all the tactics thrown at Black folks can be frustrating if you just want to be treated as a multifaceted individual, albeit one whose history and experiences in America could provide insights for anyone willing to listen.

We engage in politically nuanced arguments, sometimes with members of our own families, and weigh many pros and cons before filling out a ballot.

The Democratic Party is not immune from a sometimes lecturing tone, reminding Black voters how much they have to lose from the other side while not wooing them with the same degree of targeted fervor white suburban women or other constituencies can expect.

The voters I talk with wish that leaders of every party wouldn’t depend on visits to beauty parlors and barber shops that descend like clockwork every election season.

And most know how much folks like John Lewis sacrificed not that long ago.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the activist and eventual congressman, is being reintroduced in the Senate this year. But it has about as much chance of success as it did the first time, I fear, when in 2021, not one Republican in the House voted for it, and its chances were stopped cold by GOP intransigence in the Senate.

If you truly want someone’s vote, the first step is to stop placing obstacles in the way.

We’ve got enough sneakers.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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