SALT LAKE CITY — Drawing on his experience growing up under Jim Crow laws in the South, Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens says it is "absolutely outrageous" for President Joe Biden and Democrats to compare legalized segregation to the new Georgia voting law.
Owens testified Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote." He condemned "the left" for criticizing a provision in the Georgia law requiring people applying for an absentee ballot to include evidence of government-issued identification.
"To call this Jim Crow 2021 is an insult, my friends," he said.
Owens said for those who have never lived under the racial segregation law, what is happening with voting laws today is not Jim Crow.
"What I find extremely offensive is the narrative from the left that black people are not smart enough, not educated enough, not desirous enough of education to do what every other culture and race does in this country: get an ID," he said. "True racism is this: It's the projection of the Democratic Party on my proud race. It's called the soft bigotry of low expectations."
In his opening statement, committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said while civil rights legislation in the 1960s outlawed many voter suppression tactics, the effort to keep people of color has continued, most recently through a "scourge" of laws introduced in statehouses across the country. Just this year, more than 360 bills with restrictive voting provisions have been filed in 47 states, he said.
"These new pieces of legislation may not involve literacy tests, counting the number of jelly beans in a jar like the original Jim Crow, but make no mistake, they are a deliberate effort to suppress voters of color," Durbin said.
Republican lawmakers in Georgia made it harder for people to vote because too many voters turned out in 2020, including the 65% who cast absentee ballots for Biden compared to 35% for former President Donald Trump, he said.
"The voters who did vote in the last election were not their voters," Durbin said. "That is fundamentally un-American."
The Georgia law, which was signed by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp last month, requires ID to vote by mail, empowers the state legislature to play a larger role in election administration, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, adds early voting days, shortens the runoff period to four weeks and bars the distributing of water and food to voters waiting in line.
Jim Crow laws like poll taxes, property tests, literacy tests, and violence and intimidation at the polls made it nearly impossible for Black Americans to vote.— Rep. Burgess Owens (@RepBurgessOwens) April 20, 2021
I remember legalized institutional racism, and these comparisons to Georgia are outrageous and offensive. pic.twitter.com/I9n35vRdEG
Durbin and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had a testy exchange over support for the Voting Rights Act. Lee said he resented Durbin saying Democrats support the landmark law and Republicans do not.
"What we have today is the party of Lincoln which is refusing to join us in extending the Voting Rights Act," Durbin said.
Lee said the Republican Party has never ceased to be the party that supports civil rights for Black people, including the right to vote.
"It is not accurate to say Democrats support the Voting Right Act and Republicans do not," he said.
Lee also said he was "shocked" at the "inflammatory" title of Tuesday's hearing, adding the "lack of judgment" belittled people who lived through the dehumanization of the Jim Crow era.
"This was a system of laws to help hold Black Americans back, hold them back in part because white Democrats in the South didn't want them to vote, and didn't like the fact that they were voting as and being elected as Republicans," he said. "Let's not compare a voter registration law, one that makes sure that dead people can't vote, to that. We can do better, and we should."
Durbin said he would acknowledge that southern Democrats and segregationists propagated Jim Crow laws.
"I would concede the historical point but I don't think the senator stuck with the proposition to the present day," he said.
Owens in his testimony said it's "disgusting and offensive" to compare actual voter suppression and violence of the era in which he grew up with a state law that asks voters to provide ID.
"This is the type of fear-mongering I expect in the 1960s, not today," he said.
Owens called out Biden for referring to the Georgia law as "Jim Crow on steroids, saying, "with all due respect, Mr. President, you know better."
"For someone who has actually experienced Jim Crow laws, I'd like to set the record straight on the myth of the recently passed Georgia state law and why any comparison between this law and Jim Crow is absolutely outrageous," said Owens, who grew up in Tallahassee, Florida.
Owens said when was 12, his father let him demonstrate outside a segregated theater with a group of college students. In seventh grade, he said, his school received used books from the all-white school across town. Service stations had restrooms for white men and white women and a "filthy" one in the back for Black people, he said.
Black voters, Owens said, were faced with literacy tests, poll taxes as well as violence and intimidation.
"Jim Crow that I grew up in in the South was initiated by the Democratic Party," he said. "The soft bigotry of low expectations now projected on Black Americans, not Italians, not Asians, not Polish, not Jewish, but only Black Americans, is being done by the Democratic Party."
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., told the committee that Republicans in his state responded to the record voter turnout "not in celebration but with retaliation." He said they "got busy" changing the rules as if democracy belongs to them and not the people.
Georgia and other states that have passed laws making it more difficult to vote are all based on the "big lie" that the outcome of last November's presidential election results was fraudulent, he said.
"This is a full-fledged assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the era of Jim Crow," Warnock said.
Warnock urged the Senate to pass the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, saying the bills would turn the tide against state-level voter suppression proposals throughout the country.