By Jaime Harrison, Mike Espy and Raphael Warnock
The marches in recent weeks have extended far past the city limits of places like Charleston, Atlanta and Jackson. In the Deep South, the calls for equality and equity in the way law enforcement treats American citizens have ricocheted from state to state — from the quiet streets of rural towns like Loganville, Georgia and Petal, Mississippi, to the glittering metropolises that drive Southern economies. Even in places like Easley, South Carolina, where nearly 85 percent of the population is white, almost 100 people gathered to demand justice during a City Hall protest.
Watershed moments of public outcry like these are a sign of people feeling unheard and underrepresented, and decisions our leaders make today can have wide-ranging impacts on the lived experiences of Black Americans. For the first time in history, we saw people in all 50 states stand together to protest the racial injustices that have become all too common in our country.
As Black fathers, brothers, sons and men dedicated to making our communities stronger, each of us has built campaigns and made promises to fight tooth and nail to stop these injustices.
In South Carolina, we are pushing to expand Medicaid because too many residents of the Palmetto State are uninsured — and a disproportionate amount of coronavirus-related deaths occur in our Black communities.
In Mississippi, as we finally brought down the old divisive symbols of hate by changing the flag, and continue to fight to move Mississippi forward in all things, starting by ensuring Medicaid expansion so all Mississippians, whether they live in towns big or small, have affordable health care.
And in Georgia, we are fighting back against insidious voter suppression efforts that aim to stifle the voices of far too many Black folks at the ballot box.
Representation matters. And for its entire history, the U.S. Senate has failed to represent the racial diversity of our nation. It has not even come close, and the numbers paint a grim story about this country’s upper chamber. Out of the almost 2,000 women and men who have served in the upper chamber, only 10 were Black, a fact that is particularly notable for states in the Deep South, which feature some of the largest Black populations in the United States.
In South Carolina, 27 percent of the population is African American, while in Georgia, we represent 32 percent of the state. An entire 38 percent of Mississippians are Black, the largest percentage of any state in the country. Yet since Reconstruction, the Deep South has only sent one African American to the United States Senate.
Our same states, the ones we call home, have a long history of sordid racial legacies. We know it all too well as Black men who grew up under laws designed to keep people like us from having a seat at the table.
Those public policies for decades have either forgotten Black communities or willfully ignored them. Schools in African-American areas are underfunded, and communities of color are at higher risk to have dilapidated infrastructure, like water systems across the rural Deep South with high lead levels. Gone are poll taxes and grandfather clauses, but voting rights continue to be under attack in far more secretive, subversive ways like Voter ID laws.
Black Americans in the South are punished with harsher sentences compared to white Americans, who commit the same crime. Look no further than the coronavirus pandemic to see this inequality in full form. Hospitalization rates for Black Americans with COVID are five times the rate of white Americans sick with the virus.
And yet, with all of that in our history and present, we have the unique opportunity before us are at this pivotal moment in our nation — to turn chants on the streets into laws on the books by way of voting for those who have a committment and vested interest to equity and equality. To deliver this change, we need to a change in who represents us.
Our campaigns represent the rising of a New South that is bold, inclusive, and forward-looking. The kind of South — and a Deep South in particular — that can move past the darkest chapters of our history and look towards a future that leaves nobody behind.