It was the 1960s, and after decades following the abolishment of slavery, African Americans were still vying for simple fundamental human rights including the most basic form of involvement in society – voting. Routinely disenfranchised from the process via underhanded tactics such as literacy tests, and more blatant intimidation methods like outright murder and violence, the Black community found itself intricately excluded from actively participating in any discourse that may have altered their lives for the better. Following the murder of voting-rights activists in places like Mississippi and Alabama, the President and Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that aimed to ensure equality in our election process. Though we may not be physically attacked at voting stations or forced to pay fees at the ballot box, people of color are once again being excluded from the process in much more underhanded and disturbing ways. And the campaign to end ACORN is the clearest, prime example before our eyes.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known by its acronym ACORN, was established in 1970 and through the years has worked diligently to register individuals from disenfranchised neighborhoods, help construct schools, find affordable housing for the poor and more. It is in fact the largest membership organization of low and medium income people, and it has itself employed more than 13,000 registration assistance workers throughout the country. Its housing corporation has assisted over 50,000 families facing foreclosure, and its tax and benefit centers have helped over 150,000 low-income families receive over $190 million in Earned Income Tax Credits and other refunds. But perhaps most impressive under ACORN’s extensive accolades has been its ability to register some 1.3 million to vote – and hence help give a voice to those who have been silenced for much too long.
For the past few weeks, the media has been fixated on a video that depicts ACORN workers allegedly giving advice to a man and a woman posing as a pimp and prostitute. While the authenticity of this tape is still being investigated, let’s not underscore the fact that the man behind the footage, James O’Keefe, is a longtime right-wing agitator and instigator who has a lengthy history of targeting reform institutions. Let’s not forget that FOX News, upset over its dwindling viewership and simultaneous dwindling advertising dollars, has made it a point to attack anything that may have helped the first Black President win office. And let’s not dismiss the persistent and consistent efforts of conservatives to take down ACORN throughout the years, with trumped up voter fraud charges and more.
Even if we were to pretend that the footage of this tape has been authenticated, it still does not justify a cease of Federal funds to this vital organization. In no way am I condoning the behavior of these ACORN employees if they were in fact violating legal and ethical rules. But a few bad employees cannot account for the elimination of an entire institution that is so integral in our most underserved communities. Without grants from the Housing and Urban Development Department, ACORN would not be able to provide counseling on housing, education and outreach. And without governmental funds, it could no longer work with partners like Health Care for America Now to win the campaign on health reform.
It’s time to be brutally honest about the ACORN debacle. It’s about politics; it’s about the 2010 mid-term election; it’s about power and maintenance of the status quo; it’s about the right to vote; and it’s about the continued oppression of an already suppressed group. I haven’t forgotten about the attempts to juxtapose President Obama with ACORN during the campaign. I don’t ignore the fact that ACORN has consistently been depicted as a Black institution, when in fact it is not. And I shudder to think what would happen if we continue down this dangerous course of eliminating any individual or group that fights for the empowerment of the weak.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was established to level the playing field and remind everyone of our constitutional guarantees. Let us not regress now.