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In the year of 1619, American citizens decided that the new and accepted way of life was to force African citizens into slavery by kidnapping them and bringing them by ship to the land now known as the United States. These groups of people initially were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia. They ended up becoming property and sold as slaves to their white owners. Slave-owners needed and depended on their property to aid in the production of lucrative crops such as tobacco, indigo and cotton.
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This went on for over 200 years. The northern and southern colonies did not agree on many laws. There was a big disagreement regarding slavery. It brought about the Civil War that took place between 1861 and 1865. Many changes took place. Slavery was supposed to be abolished. When the war was over, African Americans were not readily told that they were free to leave the plantations that they considered to be their homes. Slave masters were afraid that if they left, they would not be able to plant and harvest their crops that they depended on for income.
When the freed slaves found out that they could leave the plantations, they realized that they had nowhere to go. Some were satisfied with that and simply set out to go north where they hoped to settle down in any land of prosperity. Others took offers to remain on the plantations and work the land in exchange for food and a place to live. They were not given property to claim as their own. They were only given promises.
Everyday life seemed the same. Nothing changed. From about 1900 to 1965, most African Americans were not allowed to vote in the South. When they tried to vote, they were threatened, beaten, and sometimes killed. Many of their homes were burned down or they were thrown off of the land that they lived on. Because most African Americans could not and did not attend school, they were illiterate and were not allowed to vote. Many states allowed only property owners to vote. There were instances where jars were filled with gumballs and the African Americans were told that they could vote if they were able to correctly guess the number of gumballs in the jars. Southern states required African Americans to pay a tax to vote. Laws were enacted that said that people who had gone to prison were not allowed to vote. African Americans were very often arrested on charges for minor offenses to prevent them from voting. Charges were as petty as dropping a peanut shell on the ground or driving with a light out on their vehicle. The police usually knocked the light out after making the arrest.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965. It was supposed to help with barriers to voting at the state and local levels for African Americans who could not exercise their right to vote as given in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. There were not as many problems involved in trying to vote in national elections.
News reports citing stories of voter suppression and disenfranchisement of African Americans during the general election that took place in November 2016 captured headlines for months. It was alleged that African Americans faced some of the same obstacles that they did before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted. African Americans are not represented as they should be when making decisions of who they want to represent them in government. The field is not level and it sometimes causes apathy when it is perceived that their voices will not be heard.
Because African Americans are disproportionately likely to be in prison, they are particularly affected by the restriction of voting rights. According to Recoquillon, C. & Sydenham, K., (2017):
“Felon disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect ethnic minority communities on a national level. A higher rate of incarceration among the black and Latino populations leads directly to higher disenfranchisement rates”.
As a Human Services Professional, my starting point towards advocacy and social change would be to comprise a group of employers, community leaders and resources to formally address this problem of voter disenfranchisement and other barriers such as lack of job training and housing for felons when they re-enter society. These are all areas that are decided at the state level. Statewide statistics would have to be completed to show that felony disenfranchisement is severely increased by racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A finding would need to be made to show that these laws could be declared not permissible under certain articles of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A meeting could then be held to lobby local and state congressional members representing certain districts to ask for changes within the state laws regarding fully reinstating rights of felons in the state to participate in these areas. Things are too reminiscent of the days when African Americans were charged with crimes just to keep them from voting and playing a role in society that could benefit their lives.
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Because of my being a part of this diverse group, African American, some may feel that my advocating for this social change may reflect an unjust preference for this historically oppressed group of people. Also many problems and challenges arise with governmental regulations and perceptions of what state representatives and other resource personnel feel should be addressed by human service personnel. They sometimes feel that getting into matters affecting laws and regulations are not within their scope of practice or knowledge.
Due to the complex duties of human service professionals on a day to day basis, ethical standards are provided for guidance when dealing with many situations. The preamble of the Code of Ethics for social workers set guidance to be followed. It is very helpful for review when a supervisor is not available.
Recoquillon, C. & Sydenham, K. Humanity In Action Inc. Democracy’s Punishment: Felon Disenfranchisement. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/181-democracy-s-punishment-felon-disenfranchisement
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