I live in Washington, DC and for a long time thought my physical location was a big part of what made me a political junkie. The local news is, after all, the national news. But it isn’t just location, it is also immediacy. Sometimes I know, have met, or have seen on the street, politicians in the news. This minor familiarity makes them more than just names. And, it isn’t just proximity; it is also a recognition and an appreciation of how much was sacrificed to have the ability to vote, a right that shapes so much of what is reflected in the news.
I can’t envision a day without CNN, the Washington Post or the various news alerts on my cell phone. I’m hooked. I have to know what is going on in my world, even when the events of the day are troubling. So, as you might expect, I can’t imagine not playing an active role in our country’s political reality. I simply can’t imagine not voting. As the time for the mid-term elections gets closer, I am wondering if people will vote… and I’m completely baffled and angered by the possibility that people will stay home.
How can you not vote? Particularly African-Americans who didn’t have the right to vote until 1870, almost a century after this country was founded on the basis that ‘all men are created equal.’ It was only then that the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified giving black men the ability to vote. When blacks used that power of the vote and gained a few state offices in the late 1800s, they were struck down. In my home state of Virginia, and in many others, the power brokers of the time then put in place literacy tests and poll taxes, barriers that many could not overcome. In just four years, the number of black voters in Virginia went from 147,000 in 1901 to only 5,000 by 1905. Even 50 years later, in 1956, when an organization in Richmond started actively registering blacks to vote, they discovered that only 19% of eligible black voters were registered. Voter suppression strategies had worked.
Today, hard-fought political gains—post-1965 Voting Rights Act gains—are again being threatened. Just as the election of some blacks to political offices in post-Civil War America led to efforts to squelch power, so too did the election of an African-American president. Coordinated efforts, perhaps not as overt as the 1902 Virginia Constitution change that reduced the number of black voters, but coordinated efforts are being used to lessen the political power of black Americans.
In recent years, robocalls to voters have announced, inaccurately, that the polls have closed or named a winner even when voting is still open. States are also moving to structural changes, such as requiring government-issued IDs to vote, a measure that has a disproportionate, and potentially, long-term effect on communities of color.
But one of the more repugnant strategies was seen recently when the white, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida urged his supporters to not “monkey this up” an age-old reference to the presumed animalistic qualities and low intelligence of black people. His opponent is African-American. “Don’t screw this up” or “don’t mess this up” are everyday expressions that roll off the tongue. His comment to not “monkey this up,” is not an everyday expression. It was a clear, pointed, and racialized message to those who consciously and those who subconsciously continue to see African-Americans as less than human. His statement was in no way benign. It was calculated and racist.
I grew up in a time when every new black elected official was celebrated. My parents and neighbors celebrated Carl Stokes, first mayor of a major American city, Cleveland, and Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana. They even celebrated Edward Brooke, the first African-American in the United States Senate since Reconstruction even though soon after his victory, he announced: “I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people.”
As the number of black elected officials has grown at the local, state, and national levels, we may have been lulled, a bit, into thinking that we are well represented. We are not. Currently, there are 47 black members of the House of Representatives (including two non-voting delegates), 47 out of 435 and three black U.S. Senators out of 100. There are no black governors. [Did you know: those of us who live in the Nation’s capital do not have a voting member of Congress. We have a delegate.]
All of this will change with the November mid-term elections. The question is, in which direction. While on the one hand, I see a heightened sensitivity among many in America to racial injustice, I also see ongoing inequities, many of which can be changed only by those who wield the power of the people—elected officials.
November 6, 2018, is election day. Vote. Elect those who can make this a land in which we truly are working for that ‘more perfect union’ promised in the Constitution.