Columbia | SIPA

Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression

Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, “Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression,” on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at SIPA. 

The event began with an introduction by Interim Dean Robert C. Lieberman, who introduced Jealous and the evening’s discussion, saying that voting rights in the United States was “something we had all been hoping was a settled issue. We now find it is not settled. Voting rights are once again at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and equality in America.” 

In his address, Jealous emphasized that the fight against voter suppression was not happening in a void.

“My generation is the most incarcerated in the planet and the most murdered in the planet,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.” 

Throughout his speech, Jealous shared personal stories about his grandmother and his family who have been fighting for civil rights at the NAACP for generations.

“What we have always been fighting for is a version of our freedom,” he said. 

He explained that the main challenge for him is focusing on what to fight for when there is so much that needs to be confronted. “To make things better for the next generation, you have to be extremely focused. What do we fight for? These days, the fight is against mass incarceration.”

Losing the right to vote is not only a civil rights issue; it also limits the ability to fight against other civil rights issues.

“What we have fundamentally as a people, as a community, is our voice, our right to vote,” said Jealous. “We’ve suppressed the vote, minimized the vote, shaved off a little here, a little there… This year, what we have gone through is the biggest assault on voting rights, pushing out 5 million people.”

In the panel discussion following Jealous’s speech, SIPA Professor Dorian Warren added,

“Historically, efforts at voter suppression have always been about suppressing issues of equality and social justice.”

Jealous’s address came amidst the controversy in Sanford, Florida  over  the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent protests. Jealous had been in the city the week before and described the situation as the tensest he had ever seen. According to the accounts   he heard, Jealous said that the major reaction was the deep pain of racial profiling.

“Protecting the vote and ending racial profiling are actually the same thing,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.”

The persistent theme of the forum was the unfortunate and surprising ubiquity of voter suppression laws, both currently and in the foreseeable future.

“We will have to fight voter suppression legislation every year,” said Jealous. 

- Michelle Chahine

Sanford, Florida is really Sanford, USA.

Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Jealous was the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum: Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression, on Monday, March 26, 2012 at SIPA.

In his address, Jealous emphasized that the fight against voter suppression was not happening in a void.

"My generation is the most incarcerated in the planet and the most murdered in the planet," he said. "Though we’ve been incarcerated more than our white peers, not like this…  The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing." 

Jealous also discussed his recent trip to Sanford, FL because of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent protests. He had just spent a week in the city, and described it as the tensest place he had ever seen in his life. After talking to people and hearing 12 emotional testimonials, he found that two trends emerged: 

"The first, is a deep pain of black men being killed and police not caring about it… and another broader theme of racial profiling," he said, "and it occurred to me, that Sanford, FL is really Sanford USA."

Watch Jealous’s entire address here: http://youtu.be/37uKs0tvrkI

After his speech, a panel was introduced by Professor Ester Fuchs, Director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at SIPA. The panelists each added their thoughts on voter suppression and racial profiling. 

Panelists left to right: Professor Fredrick C. Harris, Elinor R. Tatum, Professor Dorian T. Warren, Benjamin Jealous, Professor Theodore M. Shaw and Professor Rodolfo de la Garza. 


Professor Dorian Warren said that voter suppression was not only tied to mass incarceration, but to a range of activities being taken at the state level, that included racial profiling and racial targeting of immigrants. He added that, historically, suppressing voting rights has been about suppressing social justice and equality.

Professor Fredrick Harris, Director of Columbia University’s Center on African-American Politics and Society, also gave the audience a historical view of voter suppression, redistricting and demographic shifts, emphasizing “the importance of developing multiracial coalitions.” 

This led to a discussion between Professor Rodolfo de la Garza and Jealous on the importance of coalitions between the black community and Latino community.

"We’ve got to do more together," said de la Garza.

Columbia Law Professor Theodore M. Shaw later weighed in, saying:

"The issues with regard to African-Americans in this country, along the color lines, will remain dominant, important issues… Looking at what happened in the case of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and some people have the gall to say this isn’t about race. There is a deep racial divide, and that remains on the black/white divide even today."

Finally, Elinor Tatum, Publisher and Editor in Chief of the New York Amsterdam News, warned of the role the media is playing. She said that by scaring people the media is dividing them. 

Tatum later added a personal note, reflecting back on the evening’s main discussion points, particularly the importance of working together across minority communities:

"If we don’t work together, there will be nobody left standing. And it’s getting crucial, and it has been crucial. But I think we’re just seeing it now. From everything to this assault on voting rights to what happened to Trayvon," she said.

"I have a 17-month-old daughter, and when I found out I was having a girl, I was so happy, because I was afraid to raise a black boy in the city."


This event was live-tweeted. For more highlights from the event, click here: http://storify.com/ColumbiaSIPA/benjamin-jealous-sanford-fl-is-really-sanford-usa

- Michelle Chahine