Race, Class, and Rights in Mississippi: How Reproductive Justice Can Save the Pill and Save the Vote
In Mississippi, two ballot initiatives threaten reproductive freedom and voters' rights. A campaign based on reproductive justice can defeat both.
See all our coverage on anti-choice efforts to pass egg-as-person (“personhood”) laws here.
See all our coverage of Mississippi Initiative (Prop) 26 here.
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. In Mississippi, we are witnessing the intersection of race and gender politics in a campaign in which African American voters are probably the most critical constituents when they go to the polls on November 8. It’s a case study on Roe v. Wade intersecting with the Voting Rights Act and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
For the reproductive justice movement, this is an example of theory meeting practice in which we have an opportunity to link our human rights struggles in a statewide campaign. The best spokespeople are readily talking about both ballot initiatives consistently by bringing together women, families, race, and poverty. 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.
We have to strengthen the common ground between the reproductive justice and pro-choice movements based on linking human rights issues together. Reproductive justice is our best opportunity to join middle-class women with poor women so that we can win for all women.
I believe we have a strong chance of winning 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. 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.
We’re at a great time because the media outlets want to talk about this. We don’t lack an audience. What we lack is a unified message that is intersectional, credible and legitimate and that includes everyone’s concerns. We have to make parallels between race and gender so that people easily understand that we take their human rights seriously.
African Americans are the largest bloc of Democratic voters in the state, far outnumbering pro-choice voters in the Republican Party. Nationally, African Americans are consistently pro-choice and outpace every other racial group in research polls. In addition, it’s easier to vote “no” on two co-joined initiatives that are so vague and lead to disastrous and unknown consequences.
While racial indifference might fly below the radar in another state, Mississippi is more than one-third African American, the highest concentration of black people in the country. The majority of white voters in Mississippi are Republican. The majority of Democratic voters are African Americans who should not be taken for granted or for fools. Both ballot initiatives violate basic human rights. The implications of ignoring the twinned priorities of the African American community are enormous.
In Mississippi, voters are asked by our mutual opponents to vote yes to support 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 that should create jobs, and not in line with our values. When the government goes too far, anti-abortion bans cause it to lack 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. It 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 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.
What can we do to make our collective effort stronger now?
In message trainings, experts say to start with where the audience is, and then move them to where we want them to be. If campaigns are about communications, then our messages must link the racial and gender politics of Mississippi.
As said in the New York Times on October 25, anti-choice sentiments cross party and racial lines. 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, including 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 that convince them to be both pro-choice and pro-life. They have complicated positive and negative feelings about abortion like most 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.
In Mississippi, the proponents of the campaign against 26 are listening so that things are changing. Information linking 26 and 27 now appears on literature by the statewide campaign, Mississippians for Healthy Families (MHF). Forums in black churches are planned together by leaders against the 26 and 27 initiatives in the week before the election, such as the NAACP working with MHF. The Feminist Majority Foundation sent campus organizers who immediately started organizing on both ballot measures, distributing literature on both initiatives. The grassroots movement that Allison Korn from National Advocates for Pregnant Women spoke about in her earlier article on Rewire is a strong testament. We must celebrate all sides coming together on the proverbial common ground.
These efforts to reach unity are welcome but come nearly at the goal line, if you will forgive the football analogy from a sports fan. How much more powerful and prepared could we have been together if we had recognized this incredible opportunity earlier?
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, transgender 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.
As feminists, we have to remember Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier’s admonition nearly 20 years ago when she warned us that the Voting Rights Act was under attack. Voting rights is a feminist issue because estimates say that 35 million women could lose their right to vote if such laws are passed across the country, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation. 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?
A simple message might be: Vote NO! Save the Pill on 26! Save the Vote on 27! Or TWO NO’S MAKE A RIGHT! Clear, consistent, concise. While these types of messages lack the nuances that we who use too many words may prefer (and we know who we are!), they are simple, consistent and 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.
Obviously, as I write this article I do not know whether we will win because we are only days from the election. But my stomach is churning with anxiety because I care so much. I’m part of a movement of black and white women who need to make a case study of Mississippi to learn what we need to do together when race intersects with abortion politics around the country. Other personhood and voter ID efforts will proliferate in 2012.
SisterSong and the Trust Black Women Partnership have folks on the ground in Mississippi doing grassroots advocacy. We’ve built bridges between black and white folks working on the same team for united work on 26 and 27. If the African Americans working on this campaign do not understand the logic of disconnecting the two issues, it is likely that voters we need may not understand our tortured logic as well.
In some ways, it’s ironic that when anti-abortion groups like the Radiance Foundation put up the billboards accusing black women of committing genocide, the Trust Black Women Partnership easily decoded their fundamental message—they don’t trust black women. We cannot afford to send the same message—we don’t trust black women to understand the African American community.
Our movement needs a checks-and-balances system beyond the ballot box. This means we must learn the difference between the language of respect vs. the discipline of respect. Public displays of privilege, empty rhetoric, and group-think jeopardize our chances for success.
We have known for a year—probably back to 2009—that Mississippi would be a battleground in our fight. After the election, we must work together to overcome our reluctance to talk about what we did or didn’t do, regardless of the outcome.
My fear is that if we win, some folks will fail to acknowledge that the African American voters delivered the victory. If we lose, then some may say it was similar to the California gay marriage ballot that some falsely claim was lost because of the black voters in California. In reality, it is the failure of those who run campaigns based on outdated campaign models to invest sufficient resources in the African American community to swing the pendulum our way among some of the most consistent and committed Democratic voters on human rights issues.
Southern African American activists have been sounding the alarm to invest much-needed dollars at the grassroots level in Mississippi and throughout the South for quite some time, recognizing that the Civil Rights movement is not over, and that the women’s rights movement is embryonic in our region. Those fighting against the voter ID initiative around the country and especially in Mississippi are clearly underfunded and lack the resources to provide their own polling research, campaign offices, phone banks, etc. We have been forced to do “quick-fix” organizing and mobilizing in Mississippi; had the call of African American reproductive justice activists been heeded, we could have been stronger and united as two movements working together to save women’s lives and women’s votes.
As Celie famously said in The Color Purple, “Until you do right by us, nothing will go right for you.” To be heard, do black women have to bring Nina Simone back to sing her famous song about Mississippi?