What Does D’Angelo Have to Do With Voting Rights? Hint: Check His ID

You can't, because D'Angelo is one of millions of African Americans across America who rightly or wrongly have had their licenses revoked or suspended due to interactions with the law.

By Brentin Mock May 25, 2012

Reading the GQ profile of soul artist D’Angelo, like the thousands others who read it, I was blown away by his story of self-destruction and redemption. One small detail stood out for me, though. When D’Angelo finally decided to clean up from years of drug and alcohol abuse he reached out to Eric Clapton to see if he could go to his treatment center in Antigua. One problem, though:

Getting D to Antigua was an odyssey in itself. First off, he had neither a driver’s license nor a passport–a challenge when trying to board an international flight.

Two things here: First, notice that D’Angelo’s lack of a license or passport didn’t prevent him from boarding the plane. It was only a "challenge," wrote Amy Wallace. Here’s why this small detail was so interesting to me: Voting rights opponents often argue that you need a photo ID to board a plane, so likewise you should to vote. But as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, and as D’Angelo’s handlers likely realized, you don’t actually need ID to board planes. This point has been made repeatedly also by Judith Browne Dianis at The Advancement Project, and Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center, who actually tested it out and was able to board without his drivers license.

The other thing, though, and most important: Why the hell didn’t D’Angelo have a drivers license or passport? While it’s true that people without cars and of low-income are among the most likely to not have a state-issued ID, a multi-platinum and much-traveled artist like D’Angelo wouldn’t fall in those categories. Perhaps the answer for this lies in what happened to him before he sought rehab. From the GQ story:

In January 2005 a bloated, bleary-eyed D’Angelo was arrested in Richmond and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana and driving while intoxicated. … The near fatal Hummer accident came in mid-September of that year, after D had received a three-year suspended sentence on the cocaine charge.

Traffic crimes like these, especially those involving drugs, usually end up with a suspended and/or confiscated driver’s license. This 2006 article from Richmond Magazine confirms that his license was at least suspended:

Just one week before his Sept. 19, 2005, Hummer accident, he was seen high-fiving his way out of a Chesterfield courthouse after a judge had handed down a three-year suspended jail sentence (and no fine to speak of) for cocaine possession. The singer had been pulled over for speeding in January 2005 and arrested on DUI and drug possession charges. …

Sgt. Kevin Barrick, a Virginia State Police spokesman, shed a little light on the matter. "[D’Angelo] has never been served," he said, of an arrest warrant issued on Oct. 11, 2005, to charge D’Angelo with driving on a suspended license during his September accident. The reason? "We haven’t been able to find him." As Barrick tells it, the state cops need evidence of a suspect’s location in order to deliver a summons. If D’Angelo turned up talking to the local press, that might clearly place him in Richmond, which might land him in the clink.

I don’t cite all of this to put his bad history out there, or paint him as a criminal. But D’Angelo, who surely had his demons and troubles, is one of millions of African Americans across America who rightly or wrongly have had their licenses revoked or suspended due to interactions with the law. A recent study out of Wisconsin states:

Minorities are much less likely to have a drivers license and if they do, they are much more likely to have a recent license suspension or revocation. Having a suspension or revocation could result in a large number of licenses not having a current address and licenses not being renewed.

As many as 78% of African American men in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin don’t have a license, and a quarter of all African American men in the nation lack photo ID, testified Brennan Center for Justice’s Wendy Weiser before the House of Representatives judiciary committee last month.

Don’t think that conservatives and voter ID proponents don’t know this. They’re counting on it. They hope that black men like D’Angelo stay hidden. And they know men like D’Angelo probably won’t risk interacting with government officials for an ID to vote. Some might say that a person with a criminal past like D’Angelo is a poor example. I’d then offer the New York example of over 684,000 people who were stopped and frisked by NYPD in 2011 — 87% of whom were black or Latino. There were more young black men stopped by New York police than there are young black men living in New York City.

Racial profiling happens all over the country and these kinds of interactions with the police often end in arrests where wallets and IDs are taken. Just as an experiment, next time you’re around a black man, maybe aged 18 to 35, ask him if he has a license, and if he has one, if it’s valid. Then ask him how does it feel to know he may need ID to vote.