Season 1, Episode 10 - Peter J. Hammer - Today@Wayne podcast
Peter J. Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, joins the podcast to discuss current and coming clashes over voting rights.
One of the leading voices on the economic and social issues impacting Detroit, Wayne Law professor Peter Hammer joins the Today@Wayne Podcast for a sobering discussion with host Darrell Dawsey about the growing number of voter restriction bills popping up around the country, including in Michigan, and the threat they pose to the future of voting rights — especially for voters of color.
Peter J. Hammer was named the A. Alfred Taubman Endowed Chair at Wayne State University Law School in fall 2018. Hammer has taught at Wayne Law since 2003 and is the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The Keith Center is dedicated to promoting the educational, economic and political empowerment of underrepresented communities in urban areas and to ensuring that the phrase "equal justice under law" applies to all members of society. Hammer was instrumental in editing and compiling Judge Damon J. Keith's biography, Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith (2013).
- Peter Hammer's biography
- Information about the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights
- Follow Wayne Law on Twitter
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DARRELL DAWSEY: I'm Darrell Dawsey, and welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast. With voter restriction bills popping up in state legislatures all across the country, including right here in Michigan, we thought today would be a fitting time to examine the issue of voting rights and where its future lies. Joining us for our discussion today is Peter J. Hammer. Peter is the A. Alfred Taubman Endowed Chair at Wayne State University Law School and the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, which is dedicated to promoting the educational, economic and political empowerment of underrepresented communities in urban areas, and to ensuring that the phrase "equal justice under law" applies to all members of society. Peter has become a leading voice on the economic and social issues impacting the city of Detroit. Welcome, Peter Hammer.
PETER J. HAMMER: It's a pleasure to be here, Darrell.
DAWSEY: All right, great to have you. We've heard a lot about what's going on in Georgia with the passage of those very restrictive laws governing the ballot. Folks can't even go give people water if they're standing in line, but right here in Michigan, we've also had several voting rights bills that are being bandied about in our state legislature. And I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of that proposed legislation and some of the stuff that voting rights advocates specifically should be most concerned about.
HAMMER: Well, thanks, Darrell. I want to sort of give a little bit of context. I'm thinking about how Judge Keith would approach an issue like this. And there were very few things that got him more exercised then talking about voting rights and that's because it really was the lifeblood of the civil rights movement and people fighting and dying for the right to vote. And so that always was incredibly close to his heart and something that he cared passionately about. But he would very clearly say that, "The only good reform was the reform that made it easier to vote."
And if there were reforms that were making it more difficult for people to vote, or excluding people from voting, that was just antithetical to civil rights, that's antithetical to democracy, and that's antithetical to creating the kind of beloved community that we are striving to create. So that's the kind of context I take when I start thinking about voting rights, but it's also a political football, right? So, two years ago, three years ago, there was a ballot initiative, Proposal 3, on the ballot in which the voters of the Michigan overwhelmingly approved enshrining a whole wide variety of core voting rights into the state constitution. So as a baseline in many respects, Michigan has a more privileged position in terms of protecting the ballot than a lot of other states. That doesn't mean that things can't still be tinkered with. And the bill that's in front of the various legislatures is doing just what Judge Keith was telling us we shouldn't be doing. It's trying to make harder to get an absentee ballot.
It's trying to shorten the lines, or the timeframe in which you have, to actually vote. It's trying to increase the burdens and obligations in terms of identification and other issues. And we know, oftentimes, that things that will look neutral on their face are going to have disproportionate outcomes. So just as in Georgia and just as in Michigan, most of these reforms, so-called reforms, nationwide are really targeting a large African American cities. And so Atlanta is in the sights, Philadelphia is in the sights, Milwaukee is in the sites, Detroit is in the sites. And the theory behind the case are folks that don't want those communities to vote. And don't want their votes to-
And these are the same cities that in battleground states turned the election for the Democrats. I don't think there's any question.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist. These are surgically target frequently in order to produce not only changes at a state level, but lay the foundation for having changes at a national level in making it harder for Democrats to win many of these key swing states, or at least making that road harder to travel.
DAWSEY: Are there particular bills here in Michigan that you're concerned about and that you're keeping your eye on, you and other voting rights advocates here?
HAMMER: Yeah. Again, I just go back, does it make it easier for people to vote? And you can go through the list, and there are different tricks and there are different tactics, but they're all having the effect of trying to make it harder to expand the franchise, make it harder for people to register, make it harder for people to get an absentee ballot. And at that level, sometimes you just want to make things simple. And Judge Keith was great about being profound, but also about keeping it real and keeping it simple. I would ask anybody listening to this podcast, or anybody who wants to do an assessment of the bills to just ask themselves, "Does it make it easier for people to vote or does it make it harder?" We're making it harder.
DAWSEY: Now in Michigan, we've got what some people would regard as a little bit of a firewall. We've got a Democratic governor who's vowed to veto any of the legislation that may make its way to its desk. But that seemed to really kind of only force the Republicans to double down on their efforts. I was just wondering, do you have any thoughts about how you think this stuff is ultimately going to play out in Lansing?
HAMMER: Yeah. We get into the weeds in terms of some arcane principles about when you can bypass a governor's veto. One would standardly think, if this was normal politics and normal times, that if they're passing voting right restrictions, Governor Whitmer would veto it, and that they would have to ensure that they have a veto proof majority, which they don't, but you can start manipulating issues like petitions, try to get it presented to the legislature in a petition form, which is really not that hard when you know how much role that money plays in petitioning.
You can basically buy petitions, and if you buy enough, people put them out on the streets and the right kind of neighborhoods that you pre-target, it's not that hard to get a petition ready. So the real fight is going to be first, on principle; whether this is good for the state. And then it's going to be fight some kind of tactics and procedure. But it's conceivable that you could get a whole raft of hostile ballot provisions or voting provisions despite the fact that the three most important statewide offices are all held by Democrats.
Now, I mentioned that a lot of the legislation that we've seen around the country has erupted around many of these battleground states in many of the major cities in many of these battleground States. But is that... Let's talk a little bit about why that's happening. We know obviously Georgia went blue and that shook up the political world a little bit, but are there other reasons beyond just the Big Lie, as we've talked about it, this notion that Trump somehow won the election, was robbed of it because of voting irregularities that now Republicans have to somehow step in and fix; we know that that's not really true, but is that the only thing driving this stuff here? Are there other more historical causes, influences behind some of this stuff?
Yeah. So first I just want to make clear that while most of the attention is going into Michigan and Georgia and Philadelphia and Wisconsin, these are happening across the country. So there really is a widespread... If you're going to win as a Republican with 60% of the votes, these things don't matter on the margins. So, it's getting less attention, but it is reflective of a broader conservative and national trend. But I appreciate your question because we really do have to look at the long game. One of the things we really stress at the Keith Center is thinking about the production and reproduction of systems of oppression. And then thinking about the continuity between the underlying beliefs in institutions that gave us slavery. And we had a Civil War, and we ended the institution of slavery, but we didn't end the racialized beliefs.
And so it wasn't very hard after reconstruction for those institutions to be formed in another form of oppression in terms of Jim Crow segregation. And if we're taking that story further and taking it North, those same racialized beliefs and institutions have created the reality of spatial structural racism that defines Southeast Michigan. And I often say that, "We're the new Selma in terms of spatial structural racism." So, if we're thinking about the ability of these things to live through multiple generations, there's a very easy story you can start telling about preserving power for those that had power at the time the Constitution was even formed. The first thing we've got to at least be aware of is how anti-majoritarian so many of our constitutional provisions are. The electoral college is anti-majoritarian, the Senate and the two senators from every state are anti-majoritarian.
So, in the beginning, it wasn't the full-fledged democracy that one might idealize or project past in history. And then if you look at voting rights of those days, it was limited to white males with property. And it doesn't take a genius to say that they're trying to preserve the power and the privilege of being white and being male and being a property owner. So, the entire constitutional structure was designed in that way and for that purpose. And then you can take it further and start to see the different ways that the franchise might have been expanded on the margins, but that didn't necessarily change the larger underlying rationale of preserving power for the people that hold the power. And this whole notion of how important voting is.
So, there's a lot of fights at the end of the Civil War in terms of what kinds of additional protections. And sometimes people talk about there being two Constitutions that we have; we have the post-Civil War Constitution, which has a completely different set of values, completely different objective, completely different social historical context, and then you have that original Constitution. And they're really at war with each other. They're not reconciled and that's why the judiciary is so important, because whoever has the majority of votes in the judiciary is going to tell you which one of those constitutions is going to be the one that is going to be governing any particular dispute.
DAWSEY: Like the Old Testament and the New Testament.
HAMMER: Yeah. And that's not always unhealthy. I think this notion of legitimate discourse, legitimate conflict of ideas are things that are important in any society. But when I talk to my own students and we're stressing all the wonderful civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of '64, Voting Rights Act of '65, I have to just shake them a little bit and say, "Well, why did we need a Voting Rights Act in 1965 when we had the 15th Amendment?" And the 15th Amendment in 1870 was supposed to have enshrined the right to vote. And we know that that right was taken away. And we go back to that notion of the production and reproduction of racialized hierarchies of oppression. And in that context, we look at the fight today over the right to vote in a very different way.
The folks who are trying to restrict the vote are predominantly of Caucasian and European Americans. The people that they're trying to exclude are typically African Americans and other people of color, people who are late invited to the party in even having the right to vote, and so it's not a surprise. It may be shocking still, and we should be shocked, and we can't lose our ability to be shocked, but when we look at the long view, it's not surprising. And we know that we're marching with our ancestors. We're marching with the abolitionists, we're marching with the folks that were arguing and trying to get the 14th and 15th and 13th Amendment, we're marching with Dr. King in fighting again for our civil rights and the right to vote, and our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, will be marching with this as well. This is a long struggle, and we have to have that patience and determination to fight that fight.
DAWSEY: I want you to talk a little bit about that, speaking about fighting that fight. The Keith Center is certainly a ground zero for a lot of the fights that are being fought along those lines. I was wondering if you could just talk just a little bit about some of the things specifically that are going on over at the Keith Center that Detroiters should know about as it pertains to voting rights and the law.
HAMMER: Yeah… I often say that the civil rights issue of our generation really is spatial structural racism. So, from the very founding of the Center, particularly in Detroit, where we are ground zero for spatial structural racism, that really has been our primary focus. But now I have to pause. In the last six years, you have to pause and say, "We also have to be very, very concerned with rising white nationalism." And if we're not taking rising white nationalism seriously, as a civil rights issue and a national security issue, we do that to our own peril. And so that notion, how do we have a two-front war now in many respects. But I also want to stress that while political rights are incredibly important, and we've been talking largely about political rights, economic rights are critically important, too.
In that same post-Civil War era, one of the more important protections given by new civil rights legislation was the right to contract, which is really saying you have to be a full political citizen, you have to be a full economic citizen. And if you then ask yourselves, "Are people living in Detroit, and particularly those that are living in endemic poverty, are they full economic citizens?" And the truth is no, it doesn't even take a pause to come to that answer. So, we have an extra challenging set of issues. We have to always protect the political rights because the political rights give you access to changing policy. And we're going to need systemic changes in our policies if we're going to get to the root of spatial structural racism, but we can't be fooled by saying the right to vote is sufficient.
It's necessary, but it's not sufficient. So, we're trying to fight for basic economic rights. Equitable development, the right to not have your water shut off, the right for affordable water, affordable housing, and making sure that we're not neglecting, in our generation, the fact that people have to be full economic citizens as well as full political citizens. And we're going to have to juggle those as we go forward. If one's under threat, in a political sense we have to rally and fight that. But we also can't be distracted because the other issues are matters of life and death in a very immediate and real sense. And so that's what we're trying to accomplish at the Keith Center.
DAWSEY: Okay. Great. Well, listen, I don't want to take up too much more of your time. I know you got a lot of important stuff to do, but I was just wondering, is there anything else that you might want to add? Any specific advice perhaps for folks who may be interested in this issue and offering some pushback?
HAMMER: Yeah. Learn your history. I just say it over and over again that so much of our work intentionally is trying to situate the issues of today from a historical perspective and Americans are not taught their history. We're taught a very interesting mythology in high school History class, but we don't know the real struggles. And there are heroes there. There are ancestors and elders that can give us guidance on these issues, but not unless we find them. So, I just say people want that advice, go back and read about reconstruction. Go back and read about the rise of Jim Crow. Take that through line of voting from the very adoption of the Constitution, to the 15th Amendment, to the structures of Jim Crow, to the first Civil Rights Movement.
And then you're going to know in a much more sophisticated and deep way, real way, about what's at stake today, but you're also going to have a whole lot more sophisticated understanding about how to mount the fight to maintain access to the ballot.
DAWSEY: Excellent. All right. Well, Peter J. Hammer, the Damon J. Keith Center Wayne State University Law School, we want to thank you again for taking the time out to join us here on the Today@Wayne Podcast.
HAMMER: Good luck with the new undertaking, Darrell.
DAWSEY: Well, thank you very much, Peter. Great talking to you and hope to talk to you again soon.
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