Patrick B. Reyes: Exorcism at the polls

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This nation’s treatment of people of color throughout history is one motivation for them to vote in 2020, writes a director at the Forum for Theological Exploration.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of pieces from a variety of perspectives addressing the 2020 election.

The dehumanization of generations of people of color in this land is a demon that plagues our politics and our leaders. The country needs an exorcism. Will young people of color be the ones to perform it at the polls in 2020? If this next generation does vote, that courageous act will be fueled by the wisdom and survival practices of our ancestors.

At the Forum for Theological Exploration, a leadership incubator supporting the next generation of Christian leaders and scholars of color in theological education, I have the privilege of accompanying these spiritual warriors.

To understand how this generation might vote in 2020, we must understand the history that runs beneath our skin. We have to start at one of the many beginnings.

In 1492, Columbus, aided by the Spanish Catholic monarchs, set violent colonialism in motion against Indigenous people, and later, slaves.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times documents in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, humanity was stripped from millions of people whose lives, traditions, cultures and families were taken from the shores of Africa and brought in chains to America.

Families were separated at the borders of our shores and on our land.

In the American West, Indigenous people were enslaved at the hands of Spanish missionaries and landowners, their wealth and ancestral lands snatched, their histories effaced, their future generations stolen. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States purchased the now-Western states from Mexico, promising that those who already lived there could stay and maintain their property. Still, land, culture and rights were all taken after the signing.

This dehumanization continued to steep in our leaders’ political, cultural and religious imaginations, an insidious demon that has fed on every generation to follow. Compromising on the condition of humanity, Euro-descended people decided that Black enslaved people should count as three-fifths of a person in the allotment of political power.

Ultimately, the demon was met with war, leading to the end of slavery, as written in the 13th Amendment, which was sufficiently insufficient to require the 15th Amendment to ensure the right to vote regardless of race.

In 1866, the Civil Rights Act that preceded the 14th and 15th Amendments had excluded Indigenous people from citizenship -- and, by extension, voting. The author David Truer explores how dehumanization continued to manifest in the displacement and eradication of Indigenous people in “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present”.

The demon survived, harbored in Jim Crow, as it had been in manifest destiny, through which white Protestant leaders saw the land as their divine birthright, their own country “from sea to shining sea,” justifying erasure of all who already dwelled there.

In the decades that followed, Chinese laborers were building the West Coast economy, working in the fields and laying down rails, only to be met with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act restricting immigration. The disease of supremacy had spread.

In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld Jim Crow laws, formalizing the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

In the new century, a slight balm was delivered to those who were left out of voting. White women gained the vote in 1920. And in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act extended voting rights with limitations to Indigenous people on U.S. soil. More people were voting, but the country still lacked a cure.

By World War II, labor was in short supply. In 1942, the U.S. began the Bracero program, bringing in field workers from Mexico. This is the same year our nation began the internment of people of Japanese descent. Some 120,000 people, most of them American citizens, were locked behind chain-link fences, innocent of crime.

My people, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, were actively recruited to a land where they were seen as less than human, unworthy of an education. The 1947 Mendez v. Westminster ruling held that separating Mexican and Mexican-descended students into different schools from their white neighbors was unconstitutional. This set a precedent for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision prohibiting segregation in schools.

Just as the 13th Amendment ending slavery was not clear enough and needed the 14th and 15th, along with a succession of civil rights acts, the Brown case gave rise to Brown II and Brown III. Recognizing the many fronts of the fight for human equality, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a message of encouragement to César Chávez in 1966, “Our separate struggles are really one -- a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 ostensibly put to rest the question whether people of all races were to be included in the American project. A respite from the demon seemed to be on the horizon.

But growing up in the 1990s, I witnessed the persistence of that thinking from 1492. We have to acknowledge that the evil spirit has never really left. Exorcism of this magnitude will take generations. In 1994, California Proposition 187, also known as “Save Our State,” established a state-sponsored screening process to bar non-U.S. citizens from receiving public services such as education.

Even though the measure was ultimately blocked in federal court, I was stunned that voters would limit access to necessities for the very people who fed them, cleaned their homes and offices, and played with their children.

More directly, I felt the pain that my neighbors would vote their hate. In 1998, California Proposition 227 -- the “English in Public Schools” initiative -- was approved, requiring that students deemed “limited English proficient” be taught in separate classes. It was not repealed until 2016.

My heart broke when anti-immigration, anti-dreamer, anti-Latinx sentiment rose again in 2016, resulting in the incarceration of immigrating families trying to better their lives and those of their children. My son asked two questions that broke me open: “Will they lock us up?” and, “Should we not tell people we are Latino?” He is in first grade.

As Childish Gambino says, “This is America.” Watching children being separated at the border from their parents, young Black and brown children dying behind bars and in our streets -- this is not a new policy.

From 1492 to 1619 to Jim Crow to mass incarceration in which the likelihood of being imprisoned is 1 in 3 for Black men and 1 in 6 for Latinos, the demon continues to take on new forms. From the denial of the vote to the ever-widening gaps in opportunity and education, this demon claws its way through history, spawning in new forms.

With his dying breath, 46-year-old George Floyd cried “Mama.” It was a cry that reverberated through the nation, a cry straight from 1492, from 1619 and from every stolen life through history. A cry no one should have to utter.

Will young people of color get out and vote in 2020?

If we do, we will be battling a demon that has been allowed to live for generations. It will be an act of courage. It will be an act of staring into the face of the demon and performing an exorcism at the polls. As the young adults and emerging scholars I work with prepare to lead in this moment, there is no doubt in my mind that they will lead us into freedom.

We are the descendants of survivors, organizers, warriors and healers. They have taught us how to survive and fight this demon. We are combining forces, a holy union of freedom fighters struggling for the lives of our children and our children’s children. We, the descendants of the dispossessed, have been fighting for freedom for 500 years. Why would we stop now?