Mary Frances Berry

The Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights


Kimberle Crenshaw:

One of the things that actually is somewhat puzzling, particularly when I talk to people from outside the country: They don’t get this electoral college business. They also use it as a way of saying that there wasn’t anything particularly amiss or racial about how we elect presidents. One question is, What do we need to understand, historically about the electoral college in relationship to white supremacy?

Is it just a neutral mechanism? It might be thought about differently, but is it the case that it's just an exaggeration to try to tell a history about the electoral college that links it to white supremacy? If not, then what is truly the story behind the electoral college? What's its relevance today?

Mary Frances Berry:

It was created in a response to the the desires of the Southern states.  They wanted the Three-Fifths Compromise—we all know about making Black folks three-fifths of a person. And they who also wanted their states protected from the potential political power of the larger populations in the North and so on. It was a mechanism put in place to even out the impact that hose population differences otherwise would have had.. When slavery was abolished, the college was already in place, and it hasn’t been taken out. It benefits certain states as we can see from the election, and it has done this four times in American history.

One was the Hayes–Tilden election in [18]76. After that, Cleveland and Harrison [1888], and then everybody should remember Bush v. Gore. Now, this time. It benefits all those states that we see on the map below that don’t have large populations.

The problem is, you say, “Well why don’t we get rid of it?” Just like my friends who say, “Why don’t we get rid of states’ rights? What is this about the Tenth Amendment? The states ought not have the right to do anything. Let the federal government do it.” You’d need a constitutional amendment, and to get a constitutional amendment, you need three-fourths of the states to ratify it. Of course, the ones that benefit from it aren’t going to ratify it.

.The arguments about why what happened happened which I listened to is, it wasn’t all racism. Race is connected to economics, we know that. But it wasn't all racism. Take the white women. Some of them, they didn’t just have false consciousness, may not have been racist, but they looked at their sons and daughters who are grown, sleeping in the basement because they don’t have a job, and thought about all those college monies they paid. They were fooled about all this talk about how things were going to be great economically, and were hoping that these grown kids of theirs would have a better life. They were misled.

So, the message is mixed. The other thing is, when you say it’s all about racism and sexism—and a lot of it was about racism and sexism, and we have to mobilize against that— you leave out the fact that lots of Latinos voted for this guy, more than voted for Romney. The ones who did, when they were asked, some of them, in the exit polls, said it was about economics.  So it is about racism, we have to fight the racism; but if you don't understand why something happened—and none of us understand, clearly, in particulars, why it happened—you can’t work against it, if you’re not really clear about what's going on.


Kimberle Crenshaw:

Talk to us about voter suppression.


Mary Frances Berry:

The reason why people didn't pay much attention to the voter suppression and all those people who didn't get to vote, which we call the “no count”—I did hearings on it; they were broadcast internationally—is because we got a law passed, which didn't do much good. It is because Albert Gore Jr. refused to fight it when it cost him the Presidency, and simply did what somebody else here called normalizing the situation by just giving in. The only other thing I wanted to say while I'm on is that, we should not normalize and we need a two-pronged strategy. Protest is an essential ingredient of politics. We need to continue protesting all the bad things that we hate that Trump is talking about doing. Bigotry, police violence, and I'm so happy Alicia is on here, and the other issues. We need to do that, and do it across racial lines, and do it with that 47% of white women who didn’t vote for Trump. Do it with the Muslim community, the Latinos, and everybody else.

We also need to just continue to protest relentlessly, when Trump promotes harmful policies or speaks hatefully and against the people he’s nominating to hold these jobs in Washington. Which, if you’re not inside politics and you don’t understand, policy is made when these people get control of these agencies. We need to figure out the things that Trump said he was going to do that we want done. Like jobs—not that he’s going to do it—but anything he said, childcare, whatever, and demand that he do it. Then if or when he doesn’t do it, then protest that.

You need to do both things. It's not either-or. It's both-and. That’s all I have to say.