Within the pool of eligible Black voters there are some who proactively protest and/or boycott the vote. These are not the folks who forget to vote, nor are these the ones who would vote if the weather were nicer, if the lines were shorter, if the registration process were easier, or if they remember the election before they get home from work on that particular day.
These are the people who specifically and intentionally choose to stay home on Election Day. They withhold their vote as an act of political protest. Many in this segment of the eligible Black voting pool refuse to participate in the farce of choosing representatives to work on behalf of a government that has a blatant and historical disregard for Black life. Others boycott the vote in order to speak to the fact that their needs are not being addressed and essentially cannot be addressed by a system based on the racial and racist distribution of power and resources.
This blog post is not for that segment of the Black voting pool. This one is for that other portion of the eligible Black voting population.
Those Black voters who intend to vote on a regular basis but frequently forget until after Election Day. Those who make a big deal out of getting out to vote during national elections, but forget that there is even an opportunity to vote during midterm elections (like the one tomorrow).
This blog post is for the Black voter who wears t-shirts featuring the faces of Obama, Martin & Malcolm, but who can’t name their local or state representative. This is for the Black voter who doesn’t know the voting history, let alone the policy positions, that their elected officials may have when it comes to: 1) eradicating the school to prison pipeline, 2) the government’s role in creating jobs for under skilled workers, or 3) increasing the budget for local schools, hospitals etc. (to name a few). This is for the Black voter who has no clue as to who the local elected judges, county sheriff and/or other elected officials in their municipality are or what they stand for.
This is for the eligible Black voter who dodges jury duty any chance they get but complains about unfair sentences, racist court systems and KKK style policing. For the Black voter who knows neither the faces nor the titles of the people who are currently making the day-to-day decisions that dictate how the city they live in is actually run.
If you relate to any of the above-mentioned groups then this post is for you (and if you are not one of the folks listed above I suggest you keep reading since it is entirely likely that you know someone in one or more of those groups).
Now that I have your attention allow me to kindly state the following:
Dear Black Voter:
May I suggest that I think we’re doing this all wrong?
It would appear that, generally speaking, the Black electorate is not a fairly politically sophisticated one. At least we’re certainly not treated with any level of respect one would anticipate for such a sizeable voting block. Not that we don’t have good reason not to be. As with all things impacting African descendant people in this country one cannot underestimate the impact of slavery when it comes to our seemingly low functioning levels of political sophistication.
As much as we may hate to admit it, the reality is that we spent the first several hundred years of this country’s existence completely barred from participation in the electoral, democratic process. Though we made gains during the Reconstruction Era and during the Civil Rights movement, politically speaking we’ve been fairly stunted in our growth. Sure we can get a Black politician into office. But rarely do we exercise our power in a way that brings us tangible results on a community wide level. This has had a lingering (and devastating) impact—at least as it pertains to our ability to successfully implement the tools available to the voting population that (if we were White or more politically sophisticated) could deliver concrete results.
Add to this the fact that, historically speaking, when we have organized to act in our own best interests, our community was targeted and dismantled from the outside in (or bombed from above the way Black Wall Street was in Tulsa, OK). Government programs like COINTELPRO mirrored what Slate.com’s Jamelle Bouie describes as a highly complex and all encompassing amount of resistance that Whites used to completely undermine the Black community’s efforts to mobilize politically:
“During the civil rights movement, white supremacists built a network of state and private agencies to wreak havoc on black activists with surveillance, economic reprisals, and extreme violence. One of them was the Mississippi Citizens Council, and it, writes historian Joseph Crespino, “[P]oliced a white racial authoritarianism that ran roughshod over the civil and political rights of white and black Mississippians both. Because of the Council’s influence, no place in the United States … came closer to resembling the repressiveness of apartheid South Africa than did Mississippi.”
Voting on Credit
A friend of mine often says that Black people seem to vote on credit. Meaning that we don’t typically engage in voting with a concrete expectation that the person for whom we cast that vote will fulfill promises made to the community. A lot of us vote without even knowing what our candidate is promising in the first place. Many of us beam with pride when politicians visit Black churches in the weeks leading up to elections in order to curry favor and secure votes. The very same politicians that no one in that church congregation has seen since the last election season when they came to the church in order to curry favor and secure votes…
Now before you come at me with the “but there are lots of communities that are politically disengaged,” let me assure you that I am quite clear that the Black community is not the only one suffering from a lack of political sophistication. However, for our community, not being involved in the political process at every level can have deadly, lynch mob like results. Look at Ferguson, MO, home of the beloved Mike Brown as an example. As with many urban areas, Ferguson Township is predominantly Black but it is lead by a leadership that is largely White, and completely unwilling to govern from a position of empathizing with the Black citizens.
“Ferguson is 67 percent African-American, but five of its six City Council members are white. So is the mayor. Ferguson holds most of its elections in non-presidential years, and always in April, timing that typically leads to less minority turnout. In the 2013 election, the most recent municipal election for which racial data is available, whites made up 52 percent of voters in Ferguson.
In fact, the predominantly White, elected leadership of Ferguson would rather pay police officers over time for weeks, tear gas its Black neighborhoods, and let young Black men lay dying in the street rather than arrest one White murdering cop. And as noted by several media outlets, Ferguson is much more of an American norm than an anomaly.
“The truth is that the issues that are coming up in Ferguson are perhaps much more dramatic than in other places, but they’re not peculiar to there,” says Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.”
Second Verse Same as the First
Tomorrow is the mid-term election. Predictably, there’s been a lot of recent talk about the number of politicians (particularly in the duhty south), whose political careers are completely dependent on Black voter turnout. It seems as if the entire Democratic Party machine decided in the past two weeks that it is imperative that they turn out the Black vote in order to win power. (As if the election and the reelection of Pres. Barack Obama, which was largely determined by the strength of the Black vote, wasn’t a strong enough indication of this fact). Despite the fact that many in the Democratic Party treat the Black community like unwanted step kids (at best).
And so, as is frequently the case in tight elections, it appears that the strength of the American democracy is now been firmly placed on the shoulders of Black America. If Black America doesn’t come out to vote, so say the election pundits, then the Democrats will lose. And they will lose big.
This last minute appeal to the Black voting population has been met with all sorts of speeches and articles that ask “should Black people turn out in light of the fact that we and our needs are usually ignored.”
I would suggest that it’s time we read between the lines and think beyond this election. It’s time we accept the fact that we are playing politics the way little kids play house. All play and no serious plans to engage for the long haul.
Want to know why a few members in congress called the Tea Party Caucus can literally stop President Barack Obama’s agenda cold? Because the communities the Tea Party represents are politically advanced. They don’t just come out for the big ticket national elections. They vote in Every. Single. Local. Election. They vote for the local sheriff. They vote for the PTA leadership at the local school. They vote for the local budget people (aka the comptrollers). They vote for public advocates. They vote for city council persons. They vote for state and local officials.
But then they do more. They follow up with these elected officials. When things aren’t getting done in their communities, they march or drive down to their elected official’s offices with their family, their friends, their co-workers, everyone they can think of. They know how the legislative calendar works. They know how and when to submit legislation. They fund groups and think tanks to help them enact the agendas they way.
And they don’t care that a bunch of Black people came out to vote and stood in lines for hours to get a president in office. Because they know that in the four years between the last time Black folks voted for a president and now, that they’ve done the work they need to do in order to concentrate power in their typically White hands.
That is political sophistication. That is using the system to meet the needs of your own people. That is how power is taken…at least…it is when you know what real power looks like.
The Choice is Clear: Sexy v. Important
As a community, our only alternative to growing more politically astute is to continue barely participating in the electoral process. To keep playing house. As a result we will keep ending up in situations like the one at Ferguson. Where entire towns can be made up of predominantly Black citizens, but which are run by a slew of White citizens, the majority of whom have failed to demonstrate any ability/willingness/desire or even thought towards working on behalf of the Black residents in those towns.
So if you are a Black voter then you have to distinguish between the sexy elections and the serious elections. Yes it’s important to vote for the president. Yes it’s important to cast a vote in history making elections. But it’s also way important to be a student of how government works.
It’s sexy to see that gorgeous Black family in the White House. But it’s not sexy when you don’t understand how the system works. It’s not sexy when we fail to realize that by not participating fully in the electoral process, that same Black family is essentially powerless.
No matter how sexy it is to vote for the first Black president (twice), it is very unsexy to not know that the president doesn’t have the ability to shape local policing policies. It’s unsexy to be surprised that the president can’t do things like fire the police chief in Ferguson or force the cops to arrest murderers like George Zimmerman. It’s unsexy when you don’t know that your neighbors get to pick local judges, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials in the unsexy midterm elections…like the ones taking place in your town on Tuesday – tomorrow.
So here it is. If you live in a town or city where you have issues with the police, if your school is suffering from budget cuts, if there are no jobs in your city, if the school to prison pipeline is destroying your school system, if Black folks continue to occupy the bottom rungs of society in your local community, then you need to unsexily make your way to the polling booth tomorrow.
As a first step.
As a start.
Then on Wednesday you need to follow up with who won. You need to see what their positions are and find out how those positions will impact your community. You need to organize your people to hold that elected official’s feet to the fire and do the long term work of building a sustainable political agenda that can span decades. This is beyond planning reactionary boycotts. This means more than organizing a protest. This means picking up the responsibility to be a leader who can tap into the existing system in order to make change.
Don’t think it can be done? Well just ask President Obama—and the members of the Tea Part how important tomorrow’s election could be. Because all the hope and change that you have not seen over the past 6 years of the Obama administration is largely due to the fact that during the mid terms, the less politically astute people stayed home. The rest…is history…