The American Historian

To Form a More Perfect Union

George J. Sánchez

I am writing this a week after Election Day when Joe Biden has been declared president-elect, Kamala Harris has been declared vice president-elect, and yet, Donald Trump has refused to concede the election. Like many of you, I was awestruck by the passion and resiliency which drew millions to the polls during a pandemic and the willingness of folks to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots. We are living in a critical time for the future of our democracy in the United States, and I only hope that events unfold in the next few weeks in a manner that ensures our continued hope for a society dedicated to democratic principles and outcomes.

Our April 2021 virtual OAH conference is entitled “Pathways to Democracy” to display the historic inventiveness of individuals, groups, and organizations past and present to assert their claim to belonging in the United States, and to forge pathways despite all obstacles that have been put in their way. The call for that meeting stated that “in our own times, it is clear that democratic principles need to be living and to be protected, and the quest for civil and human rights never can be taken for granted.” Never has that statement been so prescient as our current moment, when forces of power and privilege want to deny the very votes that so many fought for in the past few weeks, and the right to vote that many of our ancestors gave their lives for in the past.

But it is also clear to me that democracy has always meant more than simply the right to vote and cast a ballot in a contested election. Indeed, events of the last few weeks have shown me clearly that democracy can only come alive when it is fought for in between elections and electoral seasons. Probably the most obvious example in our period is Stacey Abrams, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, who took her defeat, which itself is inseparable from blatant and far-reaching voter suppression, and launched a new organization, Fair Fight, to combat such suppression and lead a massive voter registration effort in the state. She joined with other African American women, most notably Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, Tamieka Atkins of ProGeorgia, Helen Bulter of GCPA, and Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand Up, to register more than 800,000 new voters in Georgia since 2018. In this year’s election, according to the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, 1.2 million African Americans voted in Georgia, up from 500,000 in the 2016 Presidential election. It was not enough to rely on explosive growth and changing demographics; these organizations registered new voters, half who are people of color and 45 percent are under 30 years of age.

“As a young black woman, growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if you don’t raise your hand, people won’t see you, and they won’t give you attention,” Abrams explained in April 2020, arguing that many people of color responded to her grassroots pitch because they witnessed what modern voter suppression looked like in her gubernatorial run in 2018. But Abrams was also joining a long list of Black women who had fought for the right to vote and full citizenship throughout U.S. history, as documented this year by historian Martha S. Jones in Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, And Insisted on Equality for All. From Sojourner Truth representing Black women at the first national women’s rights convention in 1850 to sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer becoming the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962 when she lost her job for attempting to register to vote, Abrams joined a cavalcade of Black women who have led activist efforts “to form a more perfect union” for people of all races and genders in American society.

That effort spread to urban areas across the nation and it made a difference in state after state. In Detroit, Michigan, traditional civil rights strongholds such as the NAACP, the ACLU, and Black churches partnered with newer grassroots groups such as Detroit Action, Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, and East Side Community Slate to increase voter turnout in the Black and Brown communities. Specific efforts such as the “Souls to the Polls” program to walk church goers directly to early voting sites, and outreach efforts by the current Detroit Pistons and other basketball legends such as Magic Johnson boosted African American turnout to the highest levels seen in 20 years in Michigan, with 94% of the votes in the city of Detroit going to Biden. In addition, the Muslim civic advocacy organization Emgage Michigan expanded the outreach efforts towards Muslims and Arab Americans throughout the state of Michigan, doubling their turnout in the 2020 election.

Efforts at expanding democracy not only came to fruition in Georgia and Michigan, but also in the southwestern state of Arizona. Arizona’s flip to Democrat in the presidential election after decades of voting Republican also was a result of years of grassroots organizing of marginalized populations and bringing them into the voting electorate. In this case, Latino organizers have been celebrating not only turning their state blue in the presidential election, but also ensuring that both U.S. senators from Arizona are Democrat, as well as the majority of the state’s congressional seats. Latinos make up nearly one out of every four eligible voters in Arizona and are one of the fastest growing groups in the state making up 3 percent of the Arizona population. And this year, they sent Joe Biden 70 percent of their vote, marking a substantial increase in turnout.

Eduardo Sainz, 27, remembers that his initial impulses to organize his community in defense of their rights came when he was a teenager. Many saw the beginning of the anti-Latino movement in 2000, when Arizona passed Proposition 203, known as Arizona’s English-only law because it was intended to get rid of bilingual education. Sainz then saw the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, the broadest and strictest anti-immigration measure in the United States, known as the “Show me your papers law,” which criminalized undocumented immigration in the state and promoted racial profiling, as the culmination of years of anti-Latino and anti-immigrant legislation. In Maricopa County, twenty-four years of abuse by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who aggressively racially profiled Latinos he thought were undocumented and created what he called his own “concentration camp” to house them, helped pull together an anti-Arpaio campaign which turned into a solid voting constituency after President Trump’s 2017 pardon of Arpaio for criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop the racial profiling of Latinos. 

Becoming director of Mi Familia Vota, Sainz explained that “we came together to ensure that we could build safe communities and have each other’s back” after watching families forced to leave the state because of racial targeting and abuse. His organization registered nearly 200,000 in Arizona this election cycle and partnered with other grassroots organizations such as Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), Aquí Se Vota, Corazón AZ, and One Arizona to make a difference this year. Indeed, this organizing of young Latinos, often first-time voters, will pay off for years. After all, even those who are in high school or junior high now are witnesses to all that their immigrant parents have been through and are ready to pick up the mantle, to vote, become organizers and leaders of organizations, as well as run for office. LUCHA’s communication director, Abril Gallardo, explained that “you see just a tremendous force of young people that you’ve seen throughout this decade really leading the fight here in Arizona.”

What was key in all these outreach efforts to expand democracy was that the organizations involved are not simply showing up during the presidential election season, but rather, they remain an active part of the civic engagement terrain in these communities in the years between elections. In my own work on the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, I have examined how a civic advocacy group such as the Community Service Organization (CSO) mobilized the incorporation of Mexican American newcomers into a political force by advocating for the needs of the neglected multiracial neighborhood during the 1940s through the 1960s. More recently, Mothers of East LA (MELA) has led efforts to incorporate undocumented immigrants into a politically powerful non-electoral force to protect community environmental safety, fight against prisons, and promote well-being. I have great faith that the organizations that have emerged as electoral forces during this election season remain active and engaged, opening up more pathways towards democracy in the twenty-first century.

Author

George J. Sánchez is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy.  He is the author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, and editor of Beyond Alliances: The Jewish Role in Reshaping the Racial Landscape of Southern California, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina, and Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures. His current book project is titled Laboratory of Democracy: Race, Immigration and Community in Boyle Heights, California.