Sam Goldman talks to Talbert Swan (Bishop with the Church Of God In Christ and longtime fighter for justice, author of No More Cursing: Destroying The Roots Of Religious Racism) about the spate of voter suppression bills being enacted across the country. Follow Bishop Swan at @talbertswan.
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Bishop Talbert Swan 00:00
There are many who have called this a new form of Jim Crow. I push back on that, and I’d say this is the same old Jim Crow. And make no mistake about it, this is about keeping Black folks from voting. It is dastardly, it is wicked, it is downright evil, it’s voter suppression, it’s fascist and it’s racist at its core.
Sam Goldman 00:40
Welcome to Episode 53 of the Refuse Fascism podcast, a podcast brought to you by volunteers with Refuse Fascism. I’m Sam Goldman, one of those volunteers and host of this show, we have to start by noting that the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd last year has been going on all this week, bringing front and center the most terrific forms of white supremacy that this case concentrates. The reason hundreds of thousands of people erupted in anger onto the streets of cities and towns across the country last year was not just because that murder was so particularly tragic — though it was — but because it wasn’t unique. It wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t just one bad cop. It is so heartbreaking to hear the testimony of witnesses to this brutal crime speaking this week, including young people scarred for life by what they saw. It is incumbent upon all of us to resolve to do whatever it takes to completely dismantle this deadly white supremacy that is baked into the DNA of the United States, and was given steroid injections by Trump in power for four years and the whole fascist Trump movement.
As we’re closely watching that case, and looking for some justice, this week, we want to focus on the assault on voter rights that is sweeping the country as a key plank of the fascist strategy for a vengeful comeback. We’ll talk with Bishop Talbert Swan, with the Church of God in Christ and longtime fighter for justice, author of No More Cursing, Destroying the Roots of Religious Racism. Georgia is being sued over voter suppression legislation. It’s significant that the Major League Baseball All Star game is being moved out of state in protest. It’s significant that corporations and business leaders are condemning these moves to resurrect the old Jim Crow on top of the new one. But the reality is that it will take much more to stop this. It’s important to recognize that much of this is a response to the public outrage against the white supremacist fascism of this legislation. This is what must be put front and center, the power of the people to reject this. Every corporation and celebrity and brand, every politician and faith leader and organization, every newspaper is being forced to respond and being judged in relation to that, or that should be what’s happening. It matters that the outrage be broadened and deepened and expressed across all of society. In response to the Major League Baseball, moving the All Star game out of state, governor Brian Kemp, who is literally canceling the votes of millions of voters, held a press conference to protest “cancel culture,” and that “they will stop at nothing to silence us, meanwhile, punishing companies for speaking out.
Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, the Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America aptly tweeted, “When Republicans lose an election, they try to cancel votes. When a business opposes their policies, they retaliate against them. This is the real cancel culture.” As the Brennan Center reported as of a week and a half ago, 361 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in 47 states, marking a 43% increase in just a month, with 55 voter suppression bills moving through the legislatures in 24 states. So let’s hear from Bishop Talbert Swan. I want to welcome Bishop Talbert Swan. I am so glad that we are able to have him on the Refuse Fascism podcast. He is a pastor and author and activist or radio host. He is the president of the NAACP, Springfield, Massachusetts chapter and we are so glad to have him on. Welcome Bishop Swan.
Bishop Talbert Swan 05:06
Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Sam Goldman 05:08
Today we’re going to discuss Georgia, the voter suppression bill and the legislation sweeping the nation to suppress Black votes, and the white supremacy that’s at the heart of it. But first, as someone who has been a leader in the fight for justice for victims of murder by police, I wanted to get your thoughts on this seminal trial of killer cop Derek Chauvin, and I wanted to get your take on what lessons we should be taking to heart and what you are paying close attention to, as we witness this trial of George Floyd’s murderer.
Bishop Talbert Swan 05:43
Yeah, there’s so much to unpack. When you look at what’s happening in this trial, it is somewhat disheartening because the first thing that we notice is this isn’t necessarily a trial that is really about Derek Chauvin being tried for the murder of George Floyd. It’s actually a trial on the character of George Floyd, a deceased man who is not here to be able to defend himself. And that often is the case when it comes to victims when they are Black. They’re put on trial posthumously, rather than their murderers actually being put on trial.
The second thing I noticed is there is a glaring double standard in terms of how we frame the narrative about certain societal ills. The going narrative from many who call themselves supporters of the police is that George Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose. For those who don’t know and I’m sure many do, fentanyl is an opioid that is used for pain relief. And in America, unlike the crack epidemic that ravaged Black communities in the 80s and 90s, when the narrative was about fighting crime and having a zero tolerance, the narrative around opioid addiction has been about it being a public health crisis, about showing humanity towards addicts, and having the proper resources to help them in their families. And that is mainly because opioid has been viewed as a problem within the white community. And, since the color or the face on opioid addiction has been a white face, America has had an entirely different approach toward opioids than it has when you compare it to the crack epidemic. However, we can see a glaring difference where now people are willing to use opioid addiction as a stigma when it comes to George Floyd as something that is criminal when it comes to this Black man using opioids when they want to have a kinder, gentler approach when the user has a white face. And then I’ll give one more observation: It is jarring to me that I see so many professed Christians, particularly white evangelicals, who are willing to blame George Floyd’s death on himself. So here we have people who can watch a Black man being lynched in the streets of Minneapolis, and have no empathy toward that Black man and support his murderer, just days before they celebrate the resurrection of a Black man who was lynched by police on a hill in Jerusalem. The irony of that is absolutely mind boggling.
Sam Goldman 08:32
Thank you for that Bishop Swan. And we’re gonna continue on this podcast to explore this in the context of the lead prosecutors that opened by saying this is not about other issues, this is just about the murder of George Floyd. We’re going to continue to be paying close attention — yes for justice — but also for our siblings across this nation that are in the crosshairs of the police and vigilantes. As we move into our main topic today, voter suppression, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice indicated that legislators in, I think now 47 states, have filed over 250 bills to restrict voting rights. Ground zero in this fight to suppress the vote is the state of Georgia. The Georgia bill that Governor Brian Kemp signed is 98 pages of a republi-fascist voter suppression bill. It affects state and county election boards. It restricts dropboxes, voter eligibility and makes it a crime to provide nourishment to voters in lines that regularly back up for hours and hours in Black communities. And I wanted to get your take on what is going on here. What is this about? And what do you think the implications of this legislation are?
Bishop Talbert Swan 09:48
There are many who have called this a new form of Jim Crow. I push back on that and I’d say this is the same old Jim Crow manifesting itself again, in a different generation. We’ve gotta remember that whenever there is Black progress, there is always white backlash. They always come together. So when you see the nation making the progress of electing its first African American president, immediately after his eight year tenure, they elect a racist son of a Klansmen to the White House. Black progress, white backlash. And what happened in Georgia was you saw Black voters come out in record numbers, particularly in the Atlanta area and flipped a state that for decades had been red, to blue. Not only did Black voters give Joe Biden the presidency, because it wasn’t just Georgia, it was Black voters in the predominantly Black city of Detroit, that gave him Michigan, Black voters in the predominantly Black city of Philadelphia, that gave him Pennsylvania and Black voters in a predominantly Black city of Milwaukee that gave him Wisconsin.
So you see, Black voters made a significant contribution in terms of wresting the White House away from Donald Trump, maintaining the House in the hands of Democrats and giving Democrats the Senate by going back in the special election, and electing a Jewish man. And for the first time in the history of Georgia, an African American preacher who is a successor to Martin Luther King in the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, sending them to the US Senate. And immediately after these historic gains, the backlash began. And the promulgation of legislation to ensure that those more likely to vote against their interest will not be able to vote. You see their tactic is not to change their message, or change their agenda to be more appealing to voters. They don’t want to appeal to voters. They simply want to stop people from voting, who would vote against them.
And so what we have is basically the manifestation of the suppression that started in 2013, well, in 2012, really, when 30-plus Republican attorneys generals across the nation filed a lawsuit calling the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, that made its way to the Supreme Court. And rather than strike down the Voting Rights Act in its entirety, that Supreme Court decided, well, what we’ll do is we will nullify the formula in Section 4 that determines which states, municipalities, precincts, districts, needed pre-clearance, before they could pass laws, or regulations that potentially suppress the votes. And of course, those were entities that had historically suppressed the votes of Back people. And Georgia, of course, was on that list. But when they got rid of that formula, in Section 4, it basically took away the enforcement in Section 5. If we go back to 2011, 2012, if Georgia had passed this law, the Department of Justice could have come in on the strength and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and nullified it. Now, they can’t do that. And so, people can challenge this law, but it will take years and years to go through the court system before any decision is made.
And so it really unleashed the ability to reinstate Jim Crow, across the nation. And Georgia is one of the first states to take advantage of this. And of course, Brian Kemp, who is only in office because of his own voter suppression tactics when he was Secretary of State, he was purging voter rolls and doing all kinds of shenanigans to ensure that Black people could not go out and vote for Stacey Abrams, who should rightfully be the governor of Georgia right now, if it wasn’t for voter suppression. So of course, Brian Kemp was going to sign this into law. It is dastardly, it is wicked, it is downright evil, it’s voter suppression, it’s fascist and it’s racist at its core. And make no mistake about it. This is about keeping Black folks from voting. The message to us is you put a Black man in the US Senate, you helped to get our guy out of the White House and we’re going to make sure come 2022 in the midterm election, 2024 you will not be able to come to the polls and vote and record numbers like you did this past election.
Sam Goldman 14:28
I think that what is at the heart of it, this white supremacy, is extremely important to recognize and to hammer home and I really feel that there’s been a trend towards voter suppression for some time. You pointed to 2013 and how basically the Voting Rights Act was gutted in many ways. But I think that the connection to the dynamics of having a Black man in the highest office of power, having Obama in office for eight years, I think Trump being in power for four and the fascists losing power, there is an extreme culture of revenge. This revanchist culture that says “you got some rights and you got some power,” and in their mind, “we’re gonna put you back in your place.” And I think that this is extremely ominous. What’s happening in Georgia isn’t just about Georgia, it is a model for the rest of this country. And there was a previous guest that was talking about a lot of the culture of these 74 million plus people that voted for Trump that in that was the longing for an America of their imagination, this mythic past, but also the longing of the “real America,” the America that was founded in genocide and slavery, the America that for so long prevented Black people from having the most basic rights and went through great lengths to make sure that voting rights in particular were restricted, and how that was connected to a whole reign of terror and this need to reverse any impression of Reconstruction. I wanted to ask you about how you see this. Is it just about the changing demographics and white men being minoritized? Or is it about others, as you talked about some of the senators that are now in positions of power? Is it about others having power? How do you see those two things coming together?
Bishop Talbert Swan 16:26
Georgia is a microcosm of the rest of the nation. Malcolm X once said this, when Black folks in the 60’s would talk about the South, about the racism in the South, and Malcolm said, “Stop talking about the South. As long as you’re south of the Canadian border, you’re in the South.” And so his broader message was racism is pervasive throughout this nation. It’s not restricted to any particular geographical area. Although it manifests itself in different ways, it still has its roots in white supremacy. I wrote a piece some time ago about Donald Trump being a symptom of a greater problem. And the way I see it is there were many people who were comfortable with the type of white supremacy, racism and anti-Black bigotry that was pervasive in the United States, as long as their political party was in charge, as long as it wasn’t overt and in your face.
And what happened when Trump came into office, all of a sudden, we got a number of new resisters, and people who were taken aback by the abrasiveness, the bodaciousness, of Donald Trump’s bigotry. I thought it was a good thing that people would push back against him. The problem with that was, what we find out is that many of those individuals are not anti white supremacy. They were anti Trump. And so as long as white supremacy manifests itself in a kinder, gentler, more polite way, under a Democratic leadership, they can tolerate it. And so I submit to them that it was because of your apathy in all the years that predated Trump that we got to the crescendo of a Trump. We have to remember the whole hashtag generation started under a Black president. It started with Trayvon Martin’s murder, with Michael Brown’s murder, with Tamir Rice’s murder, with a Sandra Bland murder. And all of this happened while a Black man was in office, and the whole resistance cadre were completely silent and awol during that time. We got to fight it at its core.
The reality is this, and one professor said it like this, he said, “there’s no such thing as not being racist. You’re either racist, or you’re anti-racist.” Because if you are not fighting against racism, even if you don’t play a defined role in terms of how you talk to and treat Black people, etc. But if you watch it happen, and you enjoy the privileges of white supremacy, and say nothing about the disadvantages of white supremacy that affects other people, then you’re just as racist as the people who are openly practicing. That’s the problem that America has. This bigotry runs through its veins. And so you’re right that people talk about making America great again, and they fantasize about going back to an era in America to which Black folks were put in their place, or they knew their place, and they didn’t get out of the place because they knew that it could mean their death and more than likely those guilty of their death would never pay a consequence because of it. That’s the America many of them want to get to.
I remember when Revolt TV was doing a special and Candace Owens was debating TI the rapper, and TI asked the question, “In what era was America great? When was she great?” And that’s the question we have to continue to ask. You need to ask was she great when she was committing genocide against Native Americans, stealing their land and pushing them off the reservation? Was she great when she was stealing California and New Mexico and Arizona and other states from Mexico? Was she great when she was enslaving Africans? Or was she was lynching murdering, raping, brutalizing and dehumanizing the Black descendants of Africans? Was she great when she was subjugating women and taking advantage of children? In what era was America great that you want to go back to? This is the America that we are saying, No, we don’t want to go back to any time prior to now in America. Matter of fact, we don’t even really want to be in this America, we want to progress to a better America.
Sam Goldman 20:47
There’s a lot of talk amongst Democratic leaders about these bills being un-American and it’s like, nope, the first step is realizing that they are America, they are America as it gets. Then once you’ve recognized that, and the white supremacy that has been the mother’s milk of this nation, you then can take a step forward. But if you do not recognize it, there can be no reckoning. I wanted to ask because you alluded to this before about what we do. What’s the relationship? I guess it’s a two part question. What’s the relationship between the right to vote, citizenship and personhood? And what’s the relationship between defending the right to vote and exercising our power beyond or outside of voting?
Bishop Talbert Swan 21:30
The fundamental right to choose who is in leadership of this nation is directly connected to citizenship. We have to remember, in the history of this nation, Black people were defined by the founding documents as three-fifths of a human being. And the only reason that we even got to be three-fifths of a human being, because really, they did not consider us to be human at all, was because of a debate between elected folk from the north and the South to determine how many congressional seats they would have. And so a compromise they came to was okay, we’ll count the slaves as three-fifths. And the irony of that was slaves got counted as three fifths of a human being for the purpose of giving racists in the South more seats in Congress, even though they nor their descendants would ever have the right to vote for those individuals. And so you can’t really call people citizens, if they don’t have the full rights of every other citizen in this nation. And at the core of those rights in a so-called democracy would be the ability to be a candidate or to vote for candidates of your choice.
We’ve seen this throughout the history of America, where the right for us to vote has been suppressed. And even once we got the right to vote, our votes had been diluted, you know, through gerrymandering, and ensuring that we could not elect candidates of our choice. And all over the nation, we’ve had to file lawsuits. I was lead plaintiff in a 12 year fight in my city to get our city council, which for years was predominantly white, a nine person council predominantly white with one African American on occasion, and we had to file two lawsuits to finally get ward representation. So those who live in predominantly Black or Latino areas could actually elect candidates of their choice. And now for the first time in history, we have a predominantly Black and Latino city council and school committee. But that was a long, protracted fight to even get to that point. And the irony of all of that is the so-called founding fathers of this nation, you know, started what I call a riot, they call it a tea party, right here in my state in the Boston Harbor in terms of the Boston Tea Party, because they said taxation without representation is tyranny. So they understand that concept. They just don’t want to apply that concept to everyone. It’s okay to tax us without us having representation, the right to vote, the right to elect leaders of our choice, but it’s not okay for them. And so there’s always this double standard that exists in America. But if we’re going to be truly American citizens, then we need to enjoy all the rights of everyone else.
Sam Goldman 24:21
I want to close with one last question that is going to be another two-part question. I did want to say that there’s a quote that we often have used on this podcast that’s a quote from a revolutionary leader, Bob Avakian, that there is a direct line from the Confederacy to the fascists of today and a direct connection between their white supremacy; their open disgust and hatred for LGBT people as well as women; their willful rejection of science and the scientific method; their raw America First jingoism and trumpeting of the superiority of Western civilization and their bellicose wielding of military power, including their expressed willingness and blatant threats to use nuclear weapons to destroy countries. And I want to say that that link was on blatant and full display in not only Georgia’s new voter suppression law, but in this rash of laws that are sweeping the nation. I wanted to pose to you how you see beating this. Do we go through the back door? Do we win despite the problem? Or do we have to plow through it and defeat it head on. And related to that, given that you are a leader of faith, what role you see the church playing?
Bishop Talbert Swan 25:37
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the three evils of poverty, of racism of war or militarism. I think you’ve encapsulated those in that quote. You can’t talk about racism without talking about white supremacy. You can’t talk about white supremacy without talking about Christianity, which leads back to the church. In order for us to truly fight this, first of all, we’ve got to be able to candidly discuss this. What happens in the public sphere is whenever you begin to talk about racism, there’s an automatic resistance to discussing the topic, and it gets deflected. There’s a lot of gaslighting about it, there’s a lot of conflict about it. And it seems that folks are more offended with being called racist than actually being racist. And so the difficulty starts right there when we can’t even have a conversation about the reality of white supremacy, when there are folks who are literally denying its existence, that are literally telling us that racism is a thing of the past, and that it doesn’t exist today.
There’s a saying that in order to fix it, you’ve got to face it. In any 12-Step program, they tell you the first step is to come out of denial. America has an addiction to white supremacy. But it has not made the first step in terms of coming out of denial about not only its long, protracted history, but white supremacy in the contemporary context. And so I think that is the first point. We’ve got to break the ice to be able to have a productive conversation about white supremacy and its continued negative effects, not only on the Black community, not only on communities of color, but upon the nation as a whole. And if any entity should play a leading role in that conversation, in challenging white supremacy, and challenging the resistance to admit its existence, it ought to be the church. But unfortunately, just it’s a direct line from the Confederacy to the fascists of today, there’s a direct line from the slaveholder religion of the past, to the evangelical white Christianity of today. The reality is the slaveholder could lynch a Black man on Saturday night and worship white Jesus on Sunday morning. That’s the same thing we see with white evangelicals today. They could justify the lynching of George Floyd today and go in on Sunday and celebrate the resurrected Christ on Easter Sunday morning. There’s a direct correlation between the two. They are the descendants of their fore-parents. And in order to deal with it from the perspective of the church, you’ve got to deal with racism in the church.
I wrote a book entitled No More Cursing, Destroying the Roots of Religious Racism, that dealt with the so called Curse of Ham, the excuse that they use to say that because Noah cursed his son Ham, and Black people descended from Ham and are Hamitic people, that the curse on Black people, the slavery, the subjugation of Black people is justified and is the will of God. And that book dealt with that fallacy and dealing with racism within the Christian context. And the church can never be the moral authority against the evils of racism until it deals with racism within its own ranks. And so the unfortunate reality is we’ve got a long way to go in society as a whole. We’ve got a long way to go in the church in terms of dealing with this evil of racism. But my prayer is that we can begin to have candid conversations and make some progress toward dismantling this sickness that America continues to have.
Sam Goldman 29:31
I want to thank you for that Bishop Swan. I want to wish you and your family a Happy Easter. And I want to let our listeners know there’s going to be a link to more from Bishop Swan in the show notes, but you can follow him on twitter @TalbertSwan. Thank you so much again for joining us.
Bishop Talbert Swan 29:50
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Sam Goldman 29:53
Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll follow, subscribe, stay in touch and rate and review the show to help us reach more followers. And, yeah, I want to hear from you. Write me [email protected] and on Twitter @SamBGoldman. And yes, you can chip in to support the show by donating at RefuseFascism.org. Click the donate button.
I want to note that Representative Park Cannon faces up to eight years in prison for knocking on Governor Brian Kemp’s door as he signed this Jim Crow law to suppress Black voters. As others have pointed out, the FBI and DOJ have discussed not charging most of the white supremacists involved in the January 6 coup attempt. The suppression of the right for Black people to vote is not simply a matter of affecting election results. Those who tell you don’t worry, it won’t have much effect, Black folks will still wait in ridiculous lines that won’t affect the Democrats — you’re missing the point. Do these measures deny people, especially Black people, the ability to exercise their right to vote? And is this part of an effort to declare people less than? The answer to both these questions is undeniably yes. After the Civil War, suppressing the right for Black folks to vote was a central pillar in the total dehumanization of Black people. The fight to gain that right to vote was inseparable from the larger struggle for Black people to be treated and respected as human beings. The stakes, I think, are no less today.
Thanks as always to Richie Marini and Lina Thorne for helping produce this episode. We thank you all again for tuning in. And until next time, in the name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America. Stay safe, not silent.