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Palin and the Memory of Literacy Tests | The Nation

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Palin and the Memory of Literacy Tests

I first saw Sarah Palin’s description of Paul Revere last week during my appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Palin’s mangled, close-but-not-quite retelling of the famous patriot provoked me to hearty laughter, but also piqued my professorial impulse to urge on a clearly confused, but absolutely earnest student who is searching for the right answer. As I listened to her I thought, “come on… you’re on the right track… that’s almost it…. aw, no, now you’re just wrong.”

For the most part it seemed like a harmless Palinism. Good for an easy laugh, but certainly no indication of her ability to attract followers, compel listeners and command media attention. The more insidious implications of Palin’s casual relationship to American history didn’t occur to me until this week when I began to think of her Revere response in the context of voting restrictions being imposed in states throughout the South.

In anticipation of the 2012 elections, Southern legislators are turning back the clock on America’s expanding franchise by reducing early voting opportunities and imposing unprecedented identification card rules. The new policies are poised to have a disparate impact on young voters, voters of color, voters for whom English is a second language and voters who work shifts. Historically these are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. These new Southern efforts smack of Jim Crow era disenfranchisement.

Among the most pernicious Jim Crow restrictions was the literacy test. Literacy tests denied suffrage to black citizens by imposing ridiculously difficult and often politically irrelevant testing on those who hoped to register to vote. Not only were African-American men and women asked to recite long passages of the Declaration of Independence, interpret portions of the constitution with LSAT competence and recall obscure historical facts, they were also asked to determine important calculations like how many jelly beans were in the jar on the sheriff’s desk.

Many Palin supporters have complained that she is subjected to “gotcha journalism” when asked to reveal her knowledge of world events, political history or the names of newspapers she reads. Though I find her responses sometimes laughable and sometimes oddly endearing, I have a difficult time feeling a fully emphatic concern about her discomfort in these circumstances. I’m far more worried about current legislators reviving an institutional practice that revives the effects of a practice when thousands of grandmothers, sharecroppers, workers and students denied—sometimes violently—their basic right to cast a vote because they couldn’t pass the unfair literacy tests.

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