America used to have whites-only primary elections – in some ways we still do

Carol Anderson
Photograph: Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters

In 1896, a moment marked by increased lynchings, violence and disfranchisement, South Carolina added to the woes and created the white primary. The law, which the rest of the one-party south would adopt throughout the Jim Crow era, said only white people could vote in the Democratic primary election.

White people, mostly men, would alone choose who would go on to the general election in November. Then, and only then could African Americans and others, who had managed to squeeze through the array of voter suppression tactics such as the poll tax and the literacy test, cast their meaningless ballots. But make no mistake, the real contest was in the primary, and whites had already determined the ultimate winner.

In 2020, nearly 60 years after the supreme court outlawed the white primary, our political establishment has protected and resurrected some hackneyed version of this discredited practice. And as we head back to South Carolina this weekend, the state that fought to protect the white primary until the 1950s, it’s as if black voters don’t matter. Again.

African Americans comprise more than 27% of South Carolina’s population. Equally important, 78% of black adults in the state are registered Democrats and they make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate. They face a candidate slate, however, that has been shaped, carved up, and emboldened or weakened by a virtually all-white Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. By the time of the Nevada caucus, so much of the winner/loser narrative had already been cast.

Though Joe Biden is the frontrunner among South Carolina’s black voters, he’s up against the swooning around Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar determined by the primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are 90.1% and 93.8% white. It’s these same states that allowed the coronation of Pete Buttigieg, a candidate who is polling in the low single digits with African Americans, and the anointing of Amy Klobuchar, who is at 0%.

To put the outsized influence of these states in perspective, economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff estimated in 2011 that an Iowa or New Hampshire voter carried the same influence in determining the party’s ultimate nominee as five voters from Super Tuesday states put together. In fact, before the primaries, Tad Devine, a senior campaign strategist for Bernie Sanders said, “You have to do something in either Iowa or New Hampshire, or you become irrelevant very quickly … I still think those voters have the loudest voices.”

Louder, apparently than the 84% of African Americans who are registered to vote as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic party.

It is infuriating that during Black History Month and the centenary of the 19th amendment, which acknowledged women’s right to vote, that some sanitized version of the white primary is in play.

This discredits the incredible work of the civil rights movement, including the fearlessness of Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, who endured beatings and forced sterilization because she tried to register to vote. It ignores the brilliance, courage and sacrifice of Amelia Boynton in Selma, Alabama, who was knocked unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge because she dared to know that African Americans had the right to vote. And it dismisses the steel will of Vera Pigee in Clarksdale, Mississippi, who faced down numerous threats as she used her beauty shop as an organizing hub for the NAACP’s voter registration drives.

A real democracy is one that allows all Americans, not just one group, to choose its leaders. It is not the one that, in 2016, yielded a result where whites were the only group to vote in the majority for the incompetence, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and corruption of Donald Trump.

A real democracy deserves better.

  • Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. She is a contributor to the Guardian.