I don’t vote because people died 50 years ago to secure my right to the ballot. I vote because people are dying right now.
I vote because systems of oppression speak loudest when their victims are silent. I vote because the fight for equal rights is ongoing. I vote because with each underfunded school, and each unjust police shooting, and each loan denied on the basis of race, the danger blacks face is increased.
Faced with that reality, I’ve often looked out on the political landscape in search of allies. But what I’ve found is a substantial portion of my countrymen fighting hard to deny me full citizenship, and an equal number who are complicit through their silence. In times like these, America must decide what it wants to be. Such a decision can only be made through our one common tool — the vote.
But black voter turnout, which reached a record 66.6 percent in the 2012 reelection of President Obama, fell in the 2016 election, to 59.6 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. It was the first time in 20 years that the black voter turnout rate had fallen in a presidential election.
I believe some of this is a result of the absence of Obama, whose very presence at the top of the Democratic ticket was a symbolic victory for black voters who viewed Obama as a symbol of black achievement.
Jay McCalla, a political commentator who served in senior positions under then-mayors Ed Rendell and John Street, agrees.
“I’d bet money the black vote was far less excited about voting for Hillary Clinton than they were President Obama,” McCalla told me. “Voting for Obama was like voting for ourselves. Each time I voted for him, I just loved it. It was not possible to transfer our proud tribal loyalty from our handsome, young king, to someone so opposite of what gratified us.”
There were other elements, as well, including a yearslong effort to suppress the black vote through legislative maneuvers and rule changes. In order to effectively do so, the Voting Rights Act, which prevented states from implementing discriminatory voting rules, had to be gutted.
That happened in 2013, when the Supreme Court, in a case called Shelby v. Holder, scrapped the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that states with histories of voting discrimination get federal permission before changing election laws.
Thus, counties in states such as North Carolina were able to tweak the rules on early voting to effectively disenfranchise people of color, poor people and students — people who were more likely to vote Democrat. Other states like Georgia were able to close or move polling places to decrease voting numbers.
Thousands were purged from the voter rolls in states like Ohio. The state police were used to seize thousands of voter registration forms in Indiana.
However, conservative Republicans and their efforts to suppress votes are not solely to blame. Democrats who speak of racial equality but do little to make it a reality are also to blame. In a political atmosphere where Democrats walk the fine line between gaining black support and losing white support, their words too often ring hollow, and their action is too often nonexistent.
That leaves black, brown and poor voters in a place where they know the importance of the vote, but too often, they don’t see its effectiveness. And they are therefore ambivalent about participating in the process.
“Black political empowerment is a function of access to and intentional use of the ballot,” said Nyron N. Crawford, assistant professor of political science at Temple University. “This has not always translated into policy change, but it has increased representation in government and even helped to grow the black middle class.”
What Crawford does not say is that, for many of us, increased representation and a bigger black middle class is no longer sufficient.
We want equality across the board, not only for ourselves, but also for every American.
But that will require a reset. It will require us to reject the patronizing policies of liberal politicians who offer platitudes and nothing more. It will require us to fight the classism behind conservative political polices that hurt the working poor, no matter what color they are.
It will require us to engage. That’s why I’ve decided to take to the streets and register my fellow Philadelphians to vote. However, I realize that’s not enough.
“We have to do more than vote,” McCalla said. “We have to show up. We have to show up at community meetings and City Hall. Our powers sits before us in the voting booth, we have only to seek our own minds and grab that power.”
To which I can only say, Amen.
Solomon Jones will join with Praise 107.9 FM and the League of Women Voters for a voter registration drive at the Municipal Services Building 1401 JFK Boulevard on Friday, April 13, from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon on Praise 107.9 FM. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @solomonjones1