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SPOTLIGHT
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War on 21st-century Jim Crow

Published on -10/8/2012, 9:47 AM

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Kemba Smith Pradia went to Tallahassee, Fla., last week to demand the right to vote.

Back in the '90s, when she was just Kemba Smith, she became a poster child for the excesses and inanities of the so-called War on Drugs. Pradia, then a college student in Virginia, became involved with, and terrorized by, a man who choked and punched her regularly and viciously. By the impenetrable logic of battered women, she thought it was her fault.

The boyfriend was a drug dealer. Pradia never handled drugs, never used drugs, never sold drugs. But she sometimes carried his gun in her purse. She flew to New York with drug money strapped to her body.

Eventually, she was busted. And this good girl from a good home, who had never been in trouble before, was sentenced to more than 24 years.

In the 12 years since President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, Pradia has theoretically been a free woman. Except that she cannot vote. Having returned home to Virginia after living awhile in Indiana, she had to apply for the restoration of her voting rights. She is still waiting.

So last week, Pradia, along with actor Charles S. Dutton and TV judge Greg Mathis, joined NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous at Florida's old state capitol building to launch a campaign demanding restoration of voting rights to former felons.

CNN reports that Florida, Virginia and nine other states embrace what might be called polices of "eternal damnation," i.e., laws that continue to punish former felons and deny them the vote long after they have done their time, finished their parole, rejoined society.

The state's former governor, Charlie Crist, had streamlined the process, making voting rights restoration automatic for nonviolent felons. His successor, Rick Scott, reversed that. In Florida, an ex-felon is now required to wait up to seven years before even applying to have his or her voting rights returned.

"Welcome back, Jim Crow" said the headline on a Miami Herald editorial.

Ain't that the truth. Between policies like these, new restrictions on Sunday and early voting and, of course, Voter ID laws, the NAACP estimates 23 million Americans stand to be disenfranchised -- a disproportionate number of them African-American.

We have seen these shenanigans before: grandfather clauses; poll taxes, literacy tests. Yet African-Americans -- heck, Americans in general -- seem remarkably quiescent about seeing it all come around again, same old garbage in a different can.

"If you want to vote, show it," trilled a TV commercial in support of Pennsylvania's Voter ID law before a judge blocked its implementation. The tenor of the ad was telling, though, implicitly suggesting that voting is a privilege for which one should be happy to jump through arbitrary hoops.

But voting is emphatically not a privilege. It is a right. By definition, then, it must be broadly accessible. These laws ensure it is not.

We are indebted to the NAACP for bringing attention and leadership to this. Five years ago, a newspaper columnist -- a guy named Pitts, actually -- raked the organization for being "stagnant, static and marginal to today's struggle."

But that was then. In fighting to restore the voting rights of ex-felons, in calling last year for an end to the failed "War on Drugs," the NAACP has done more than energize itself.

It has also challenged us to recognize that the brutish goals of Jim Crow America never died, but simply reshaped themselves to the sensibilities of the 21st century, learned to hide themselves in the bloodless and opaque language of officially race-neutral policy. It would be a critical mistake not to understand this. Indeed, the advice of the late Teddy Pendergrass seems freshly apropos: Wake up, everybody. And realize:

Garbage is garbage, no matter how pristine the can.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

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