My grandparents grew up in Jim Crow Virginia. Back then, Black folks like them faced poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation that kept them from exercising their right to vote. The white ruling class successfully kept Black people from fully participating in the political process. It was unthinkable that two generations later, their grandson, a 33-year-old openly gay, Black man, would be the Democratic nominee for Congress in the predominantly white, affluent suburbs of New York City.
But my grandparents’ generation changed the course of history. Refusing to accept their station, they embarked on the project of realizing this country’s highest ideals. They organized boycotts, sit-ins, and marches that made the plight of Black Americans impossible to ignore. Confronted with indelible images of Black humanity and white oppression, the Supreme Court and Congress had no choice but to finally extend the civil rights guaranteed in our Constitution.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a hard-won victory decades in the making. Blood was shed. But in the end, my grandparents and millions of others secured their right to vote, and within a decade, elected Black candidates to public office at a rate not seen since the dawn of Reconstruction.
Nearly 60 years later, Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation threatens to return Black people to an era that our grandparents had reduced to memory. Jim Crow will be reborn, unraveling democracy as we know it. This is not hyperbole. Barrett’s record as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit makes this clear. In one decision, she supported “virtue-based restrictions” on voting. In her view, voting is not a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen of this country; it is a privilege that states can revoke when they see fit. This harkens back to the “morals” tests Southern states once deployed to disenfranchise Black voters.
In her contempt for Black voters, Barrett follows in the footsteps of her self-professed idol, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she clerked and of whom she has said, “his judicial philosophy is mine.” Scalia notoriously denounced America’s civil rights legislation as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Asked in her recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee whether she agreed with her former boss’ characterization of civil rights legislation, Barrett refused to say.
Her testimony made clear that Barrett will complete the project Scalia started. In 2013, the Supreme Court killed off the core of the Voting Rights Act—the crown jewel of the civil rights movement—when it struck down a provision that allowed the federal government to intervene before Southern states made changes to their election laws that disenfranchised Black voters. Now, with Amy Coney Barrett in the fold, the conservative majority will succeed in dealing the Voting Right Act a final, fatal blow by making it effectively impossible for disempowered voters who challenge discriminatory rules to prevail in court. The fight for voting rights will be set back nearly a century, and the idea of a multiracial democracy will return to the realm of impossibility.
At a time when our democracy is hanging on by a thread, we cannot afford to go backward. This moment urges us to work harder to protect and expand a democracy that empowers all Americans. A democracy where every vote matters—in presidential elections, because the contest won’t come down to a handful of swing states, and in congressional elections, because we’ll have ended the scourge of partisan gerrymandering. Where people never have to worry about whether their friends and family are registered to vote, because everyone is registered automatically. Where working people don’t have to worry about having their pay docked in order to head to the polls, because Election Day is a national holiday and voting by mail is universally available.
Democrats in Congress are prepared to realize that vision. That’s why the current House of Representatives made fixing democracy its first order of business after the 116th Congress convened in January 2019 by passing the For the People Act (HR1), which would bring about a transformative, wholesale restoration of our democracy.
The next Congress will once again honor its promise to the American people by passing HR1—and this time, if democracy prevails, we’ll have a president who will sign it. But the right-wing bloc on the Supreme Court, which has shown hostility to similar provisions passed at the state level, will almost certainly strike it down.
But we don’t have to accept that fate. Congress can adjust the size of the court, and it has done so seven times before. Like the right to vote, the practice of court expansion—which would save our ailing democracy—has deep roots in American history.
In his posthumous essay to the American people, Representative John Lewis wrote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”
We must heed his words. We must act—before Amy Coney Barrett and the Supreme Court do. There is no other practical choice. We must expand the court. If we don’t, a return to the Jim Crow regime under which my grandparents and tens of millions of Black people suffered is inevitable.