- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
First published in the Guardian
Not voting in the age of Obama has become almost a taboo subject among African Americans. After record black voter turnout helped elect the nation’s first black president in 2008, the decision not to vote is regarded by many as an affront to the ancestors who died and activists who bled to exercise this right.
“They are not worth the color if they don’t vote. They oughta give us their color back. Their African-American credentials should be snatched if they don’t vote,” proclaimed an impassioned Representative Emanuel Cleaver (Democrat, Missouri) in his address to the 42nd annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation before the “voting rights and new age discrimination” panel.
The sense of community responsibility to vote is all the more palpable leading into the November presidential election – as 17 states passed voter identification laws that would place restrictions on the quarter of the black population that does not hold a form of government-issued ID. In 2012, voting rights have become a resurgent civil rights issue,prompting First Lady Michelle Obama to call it “the march or our time” and “the sit-in of our day”. While attempts to obstruct voting by African Americans attest to the community’s voting power, voter suppression laws serve as painful reminder of the disenfranchisement they perpetually face, even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Institutional discrimination has historically driven black voter apathy, which remains an intangible, submerged fact permeating the lives of African Americans unable to see how their voice matters in America. The current challenges for black Americans – an above-average 14% unemployment rate, more than 27% living in poverty, violence and crime increasing steadily, alongside mortgage foreclosures and debt, and racialized law enforcement initiatives such as “stop-and-frisk” – lead some to feel the need for survival may usurp the right to vote. Writer and Ebony.com contributor Josie Pickens says:
“That apathy is more common than we’d care to admit- that feeling of powerlessness … we must also examine a political system that makes its own citizens feel unrepresented and ignored.”
The poll taxes and literacy tests that discouraged the “negro vote” in a segregated country a century ago have mutated into the voter ID laws and recessionary pressures that deter African Americans from exercising their voting rights in an increasingly polarized political environment. Besides apathy, there is also active resistance from black Americans, who abstain from participating in a flawed political system in which they believe each party serves to oppress and not empower its citizens. Ferrari Sheppard, artist and independent journalist, expresses his reasons for not voting thus:
“The United States [is] run by banks and global elite, presidents and other so-called elected officials are nothing more than customer service representatives, entertaining and lulling the masses to sleep. I refuse to play their game.”
Disillusionment with the system finds historical resonance in the political evolution of the renowned African-American scholar, WEB Du Bois, who pivoted from advocating the vote in 1903, to abstentionism in 1956. In his essay, “Why I Won’t Vote”, published in the Nation in 1956, Du Bois’ scathing critique of corporate greed and its influence on politics, of the lack of affordable healthcare, of racial disparities, and of warmongering reads like a manifesto for modern-day popular movements like Occupy the Hood.
While the abstentionist critique of voting is rooted in a tradition of black American radicalism, it remains – along with apathy – a hotly-contested topic of community discussion, as was recently evidenced by the Twitter debate between Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco and CNN contributor Roland S Martin. Tweets variously denouncing Lupe as a “clown”, praising this decision to abstain, and supporting his political freedom to choose, exposed a myriad of diverging opinions on how African Americans can create substantive change inside and outside of government.
In his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”, Malcolm X simultaneously encouraged blacks Americans to form a unified bloc that could serve as a swing vote and expressed skepticism that voting could bring about equality. That lecture, delivered nearly 50 years ago, still captures much of the complexity of the black voting landscape today.
For many African-American non-voters, whether they are alienated into apathy or willfully abstain, the legacy of black inequity is inescapable, even in the era of an African-American president. So some still ask: we are in this country, but are we of this country?