As millions of Americans cast their vote in the upcoming Presidential election, more than 20 percent of Black Tennesseans will be unable to participate due to past felony convictions. That’s 1 out of 5 Black adult Tennesseans. The state’s racial makeup is 78 percent white, 17 percent Black, 1.7 percent Asian, 0.3 percent Native American, and 3 percent mixed race and other. Despite only making up 17 percent of the state’s population, Black people comprise 44 percent of the state’s prison population.
According to Tennessee law, a person convicted of a felony must pay restitution and legal fees in full before they can even begin the process of having their voting rights restored. This part of the law presents an insurmountable financial hurdle for many who wish to have their voting rights reinstated. According to an article in the October 18, 2020 edition of the newspaper The Tennessean (“Nashville Faces Incarceration Crisis”), the zip code 37208 in historically Black North Nashville “has the highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a 2018 study from The Brookings Institution.” The population in 37208 is 93 percent percent Black. Some 14 percent of people born between 1980 and 1986 in the zip code were incarcerated at the time of the Institution’s study. There are a host of problems that feed into the incarceration cycle in the zip code. These include a heavy police presence, a lack of affordable housing, poor education and healthcare, systemic racism that stripped the area of funding and resources for 150 years, and a lack of opportunity for wealth building.
Like North Nashville, other cities in Tennessee with large Black populations, Memphis (64 percent Black), Jackson (45 percent Black) and Chattanooga (32.6 percent Black) also suffer from a host of socioeconomic problems that feed into the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Tennessee has a Republican governor, House, and Senate. It would be easy for a person to jump to the conclusion that the high numbers of Black Tennesseans who are incarcerated and subsequently barred from voting are merely an example of systemic racism instituted by the far-right Republicans. But the truth is that this problem is a symptom of the capitalist system in general.
Black Americans were theoretically granted the right to vote in 1870. However, there have always been a host of local laws put in place that disenfranchise large numbers of Blacks from voting in practice. Universal suffrage is not guaranteed in Tennessee, and disenfranchisement can often be predicted along racial and economic lines. Being poor or working-class lends one to being targeted by the police and the criminal justice system, and this reality is exacerbated for Blacks and other people of color. In Tennessee, as in other states, a felony conviction strips the convicted of voting and employment opportunities upon release, and this feeds into the vicious cycle of psychic and real disenfranchisement, poverty, and incarceration.
Disenfranchising over 20 percent of Black people from voting in one state strengthens the far-right and Democrats who are insistent upon being tough on crime. Incarcerated people ought to be allowed to vote along with everyone else. Moreover, people should not be barred from voting and employment, and thus stripped of their dignity upon release. In a socialist society, there will be no cycle of impoverishment and incarceration based on race and class. Until the socialist revolution, we must work as Marxists to demand equal rights for Black people and other people of color, and for all poor and working-class people, and that the formerly incarcerated be fully reintegrated back into society.