We need a new rule. Just as no modern political leader is “Hitler,” no current U.S. government policy is “Jim Crow.”
By this point, every Internet kid is familiar with Godwin’s Law: That, as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of one or more participants being compared to Hitler/the Nazis approaches 100%.
But, here’s the thing: The second “clause” of the law — per U.S. lawyer Bill Godwin himself — is that the first person to make the Hitler comparison always loses the argument. Why? Because no current policy positions are in fact comparable to those held by Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for the Holocaust and the world’s only nuclear war while Supreme Leader of 3rd Reich Germany.
A similar rule applies to Jim Crow segregation, which was a uniquely evil period of U.S. history. From the end of the “Reconstruction” Era (1865-1877) that followed the conquest of the slave-holding U.S. South by an integrated Northern Army until at least 1954, many Southern states legally implemented policies of apartheid-style racial separation.
Children of different races went to different schools. Many everyday businesses — soda fountains, movie theaters, shops — served only Whites or consigned “Negroes” to a single inferior section of the business. Far worse, 3,446 African-Americans (along with 1,297 Whites) were lynched by mobs between 1882 and 1968 — often strung up with rope nooses or burned alive.
Not much, if anything, today is comparable. However, today’s politicians seem not to know this. A simple Google search for the phrase “politicians Jim Crow compare” — try it! — turns up multiple major articles discussing Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and various Georgia state representatives comparing a whole range of things to the deceased institution, with Ms. Wasserman-Schultz earning a flat “False” from PolitiFact for one of her claims.
President Biden seems to be something of a repeat offender on this front. In addition to noting over the years he believes “poor kids are just as smart as white kids” and that you need “a slight Indian accent” to work at a 7/11 store, he was widely accused of race-baiting in 2012 after choosing to describe a dull financial de-regulation measure backed by then-Presidential candidate Mitt Romney as likely to put members of a diverse Virginia audience “back in chains.”
More recently, Mr. Biden has turned his attention to Senate Bill 202, a new voting law just passed in Georgia, calling it “Jim Crow on steroids” and arguing that the measure “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
Does it? It’s worth examining these claims in some depth. The Georgia law is pages long and includes many provisions which essentially no one appears to object to: A significant expansion of early voting (now 17 days in Georgia), the creation of a special ballot class for non-partisan elections, a requirement that absentee ballots be issued at least 17 days before a federal primary or general election, and language indicating a commitment to reduced voter wait times.
Other provisions are more contested. Georgia requires an ID for in-person voters, and S.B. 202 specifies that a driver’s license number or other ID number must appear on a voter’s absentee ballot. Perhaps most notably, the new law bans “gifts” of food and drink to voters within 150 feet of a polling place, leading such Georgia politicians as Georgia Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler to eloquently accuse the pachyderms of trying to criminalize “bringing Grandma some water.”
Many political and media takes on S.B. 202 verged on the disingenuous, or crossed that verge, by any standard. Georgia does require an ID for in-person or absentee voting, but state IDs are provided free in Georgia.
The state Department of Driver Services website prominently announces: “An ID card can be issued at any County Registrar’s office free of charge.” These ID rules frankly do not seem to be far from the national norm: Ten U.S. states currently have strict photo or non-photo ID requirements for voters, and 23 more have a less strict “ID request” policy in place.
Georgia’s “no gifts” rule may sound harsh, but state officials have noted repeatedly that this is designed to prevent electioneering — the passing out of bottles of “Donald Trump Iced Tea” and the like — and nothing stops voters from bringing their own water, using fountains inside the polling place, asking poll workers for refreshments or presumably even ordering food to the polling place.
Technical corrections aside, there is a deeper and more important level of analysis here. Even if the new Georgia law were exactly what Mr. Biden described, it would not be comparable to “Jim Crow on steroids.”
It would not be comparable to Jim Crow, at all. Having to wait (say) 22 minutes without cold water — which no one in Georgia has to do — is not only not comparable to being lynched, but not all that difficult for most healthy people. While activists may see it as a mere witty conversational gambit, the constant use of hysterical racialized language like this has consequences.
A recent report from the Manhattan Institute found that an astonishing 80% of African-Americans believe that more young Black men are killed annually by police shootings than automobile wrecks. To put that remarkable belief in context, there are nearly 50,000 fatal auto wrecks every year, with Blacks and young people represented proportionately among their victims. In contrast, the total number of Black Americans (of all races and sexes) shot by police last year was 241; 18 were unarmed.
In light of the frequent contrast between reality and dangerous fantasy within today’s conversation about race, I propose a new standard. People can certainly oppose imperfect conservative legislation like S.B. 202, or equivalents from the Democrats’ left side of the aisle, such as a measure making “ballot harvesting” easier to do. But, the first person to claim Bull Connor or Stonewall Jackson or lynch mobs as analogous to anything going on in modern politics automatically loses the debate.
We could call this “MLK’s Law.” How about it?
• Wilfred Reilly is an American political scientist. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University.
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