Civil rights group urges action against Russian effort to suppress the black vote

Adding its voice to a crescendo of complaints about Russian interference in both the 2016 presidential and the 2018 midterm elections, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights and urban advocacy organizations decried efforts by foreign agents to use social media outlets to suppress voting turnout among black Americans.

In its State of Black America 2019 report, released Monday morning at a news conference in Washington, D.C., the National Urban League (NUL) said that state-sponsored Russian activists fed into the nation’s simmering racial antagonism in an effort to tamp down black voters’ confidence and dissuade voting participation.

“A Russian-linked social media campaign called “Blacktivisty” used Facebook and Twitter in an apparent attempt to amplify racial tensions during the U.S. presidential election,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said in a statement released to coincide with the public dissemination of the report. “It used the integrity of the Black Lives Matter hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) to carry out an insidious campaign of voter suppression.”

During comments made at the news conference, Morial said black voters were targeted because black Americans have exercised political strength over the decades since the passage of voting rights laws in the 1960s. What’s more, he noted, the nation is rapidly becoming more racially diverse, which could lead to greater black voting participation.

“Efforts to suppress the Black vote have coincided with a rapid diversification of the voting public,” Morial said. “The projected 2020 electorate is 66.7 percent white, down from 76.4 percent in 2000. The sad fact is, as the Black vote becomes more critical, efforts to suppress it grow stronger.”

Every year, the civil rights organization releases its assessment of black America, focusing on issues of racial equality in economics, employment, education, health, housing, criminal justice, and civic participation. Typically, the lengthy report contains essays written by scholars, politicians, and civil rights activists.

This year’s report — titled “Getting 2 Equal: United Not Divided” — is no different, offering commentary from 33 authors spanning the gamut of politics, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); academics (Dr. Silas Lee, professor of sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana); civil rights (Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change); and pop culture (Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus).

In preparing this year’s report — it’s 43rd edition — NUL partnered with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States to examine the role Russia played in its massive operations to influence U.S. elections.

“Russian trolls were on a seek, destroy and divide mission, targeting African Americans with surgical precision on social media platforms and chipping away at our nation’s exposed racial fault lines,” the report stated.

The NUL report follows a series of similar findings by private organizations and federal officials. A U.S. Senate intelligence report, for example, noted with great confidence that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian trolling operation, targeted black voters with suppression tactics in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. That report — “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency” — noted, in part, “As the election became imminent, themes were tied into several varieties of voter suppression narratives, e.g.: don’t vote, stay home, this country is not for Black people, these candidates don’t care about Black people.”

Such activities prompted the NUL report to conclude that “[t]oday there is no denying that American democracy is under serious threat and sustained attack.”

Additionally, NUL joined with the Brennan Center for Justice to produce a series of maps that indicated the sweep of domestic voter suppression efforts. In that section of the report, NUL argued that access to voting is being threatened by restrictive bills in state legislatures and that civil rights groups are mounting court challenges to restrictive voting practices in several states.

Morial said the growing power of black voters has triggered a backlash to prevent them from full participation in civic life, a development he said was made clear in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and hasn’t been addressed properly by the Trump administration.

“Since the release of the Mueller report, the administration has careened among wildly contradictory positions, from flatly denying the interference as a ‘hoax,’ misrepresenting it as ‘a few Facebook ads,’ to declaring cooperation with hostile foreign agents to be a perfectly legal and natural course of action for a political campaign,” Morial said.

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