By Loretta Ross, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine
In Mississippi, we are witnessing the intersection of race and gender politics in two ballot initiatives on which African American voters are the critical constituents on voting day on November 8, 2011. The 2011 Mississippi ballot Initiative 26 on Personhood and Initiative 27 on Voter ID exclusions may be one of the most important opportunities on the ground for the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements to work together.
Both ballot initiatives violate basic human rights. For the Reproductive Justice movement, this is an opportunity to link our human rights struggles in a statewide campaign. The implications of ignoring the twinned priorities of the African American community are enormous.
I believe we have a strong chance of winning on both in Mississippi because I trust that African American people, especially black women, will do the right thing and vote against these initiatives if they are given the opportunity to vote, the motivation to vote and the right information with which to vote. Mississippi has the highest concentration of black people in the country – more than one-third of the population – and African Americans are the largest bloc of Democratic voters in the state.
In Mississippi, with its troublesome history of denying black people the right to vote, disenfranchisement through Voter ID is a very important issue that will bring them to the polls. Our task is to convince them to also vote against the Personhood Initiative. To do that, our messages must link the racial and gender politics of Mississippi.
Voters are asked in Initiative 26 to vote on a deeply flawed, unconstitutional ballot initiative declaring the fertilized egg as a person from the moment of conception. This creates dangerous unintended consequences for women, doctors, families and communities. Such government intrusion is bad for our health decisions, bad decision making by the government and not in line with our values. When the government goes too far, abortion bans and other anti-abortion efforts show a lack of compassion for rape and incest victims, and women needing life-saving medical treatments that doctors may be forced to deny to save a fertilized egg. If passed, Initiative 26 will force young girls to have kids and outlaw basic services like birth control pills or emergency contraception.
Personhood efforts actually attempt to trump women’s biology – the vast majority of “fertilized eggs” are lost through menstruation or absorbed into the woman’s body so that only a tiny fraction go on to become pregnancies. Ironically, it will also prevent women who want to become pregnant from using in vitro fertilization.
Similarly, consequences for Voter ID are grim if our mutual opponents succeed in passing Initiative 27. If people are kept from voting – because of the lack of government ID or missing birth certificates – then Mississippi returns to the 1960s when voter denials based on race and gender were common and mocked our democracy. In the future, our movements will face an even more Republicanized state legislature, guaranteeing that women’s and civil rights will be violated.
Our movement’s messages must make clear how Mississippi’s proposed Voter ID ballot initiative will negatively affect seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, immigrants, transgendered people and students. This is an excellent moment for our movement to show that we clearly recognize the Voter ID initiative in this state for what it really is – a racist attempt to cynically attack the African American electorate under the auspices of curbing voter fraud.
Voting rights are also a feminist issue. A century ago, our foremothers fought for the right to vote. Dare we take for granted that this basic human right is secure against attacks by Republicans? Estimates say that 35 million women could lose their right to vote if such Voter ID laws are passed across the country, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation.
In message trainings, experts say to start where the audience is, and then move them to where we want them to be. The best spokespeople are readily talking about both ballot initiatives consistently and bringing together concerns on women, families, race and poverty.
We need to do more, and do it better. We have to make parallels between race and gender so that people easily understand that we take their human rights seriously. It’s easier to vote “no” on two co-joined initiatives that are so vague and lead to disastrous and unknown consequences.
A simple message might be: Vote NO! Save the Pill on 26! Save the Vote on 27! Or TWO NOs MAKE A RIGHT!
Clear, consistent, concise. They are easily remembered memes for our audiences. We can add nuances in face-to-face and phone conversations because personal voices and heartfelt convictions are sincere in our grassroots mobilization efforts.
At the same time, both messages carry with them our central theme of unintended consequences. The supporters of both initiatives would rather ignore the probability that birth control will be outlawed and that voters without birth certificates could not vote. Women of color will be the first and majority of the casualties of the Personhood Initiative if women are investigated for miscarriages. Mississippi already has the highest rate of infant mortality in the country. If the Voter ID Initiative passes, it is highly likely that the voters most affected will be voters of color. We know this in our guts. Now we have to believe it with our higher reasoning brains.
Our job is to point out these second-order consequences, but our strategy has to be to link the two together.
By co-joining race (Voter ID-27) with gender (Personhood-26), we have an excellent opportunity to experience an example of intersectionality in practice in an electoral campaign in which black women may be the very voters we need to move the needle against our opponents’ long-term manipulation of the African American electorate.
As an activist who has worked more than 35 years in this movement, I don’t assume that when African Americans say they are “pro-life” that they mean implacable opposition to abortion. In fact, there are many circumstances — saving a woman’s life, helping victims of rape or incest, or reducing the number of kids raising kids — that are strong values in the African American community and that convince them to be both pro-choice and pro-life. They have complicated positive and negative feelings about abortion, as do many people.
However, when it comes to passing laws controlling other people’s bodies and choices, the needle strongly moves to our side because African Americans have an atavistic rejection of anything resembling enslavement. We know that story very well. We also know that we will not give up our rights to have our voices heard through attempts to close ballot boxes or through inadequate messaging.
But my stomach is churning with anxiety because I care so much. I’m part of a movement of black and white folks who are doing grassroots advocacy, working to unite our efforts to stop Initiative 26 and Initiative 27. We need to stop Mississippi and then learn what we need to do together when race intersects with abortion politics around the country.
Loretta J. Ross is the National Coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, and part of the Trust Black Women Partnership, both of whom join in this commentary.