Tuesday, September 9, 2008


About those poor African-Americans…In the US, various insidious legal and constitutional means were used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote for a long time. In the South, in states such as the great state of Alabama where the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka comes from, the poll tax was used to disenfranchise mostly black people and very poor people until the1960s.

As it happens, in the deep south of the USA, there are to this day more poor African Americans compared to other groups, because of the history of discrimination and lack of opportunities.

While the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution in the late 1800s was supposed to guarantee the rights of black Americans (after the civil war) to vote, that right was stolen from them in the deep South where the Confederate states lie.

A poll tax, in the sense was a discrimination tax which was a pre-condition of the exercise of the right to vote. It was created in some US states in the late 19th century. After the right to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws which often included a grandfather clause that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws were designed to disfranchise African and Native Americans as well as poor whites.

Even demanding equal rights was met with repressive local and state government measures, including terrorism in the Deep South: and specially in Alabama which still has laws banning interracial marriages supported by over 45% of their people! (despite the Supreme Court declaring such unchristian laws unconstitutional in 1967).

It was only after the 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964 that the poll tax was done away with as a pre-condition in voting in Federal elections. In a two month period in the spring of 1966, the last four states to still charge a poll tax laws had those laws declared unconstitutional by Federal Courts; Texas, Alabama, Virginia and Mississippi.

Therefore, if you compare a nation that was over 200 plus years old with Sri Lanka which is only 60 years old, we can proudly say that Sri Lanka has never discriminated on the basis of race on who has a right to vote.

During this election, Obama is now being hounded by propaganda that suggests he is a Moslem, he is not American, he is not "one of us" and even campaigns to suggest he was not born in America. He is now trailing in the polls as the Republican attack machinery has moved into top gear with attacks. They will use the race card closer to November 4, to drive fear into people about him because he is "not like us" despite being born to a white mother and Kenyan father.

It will be good for polls monitors to watch the election here. Last time, polling machines "Failed" in predominantly African American neighbourhoods in Ohio, polling cards "ran out" in predominantly democratic neighbourhoods, false directions to polling booths were given in poor neighbourhoods, email campaigns were spread to say Hispanics cannot vote etc.

What will happen this year? When Americans like to lecture to Sri Lankans on democracy and universal franchise, I wish the self-styled intellectuals call their bluff when it is necessary.

Mano Ratwatte, www island.lk

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