interrogating black politics and voting in america

October 24, 2018
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I’ve no plans to vote this November. Haven’t even bothered to register.

Feels like too much of a hassle when the outcomes seem analogous, if not predetermined.

To my credit, I live in a state where party primaries drastically determine electoral results. One-party-hegemony is an interesting paradox in a democracy and experience working a series of electoral campaigns in New York City taught me the many ways party politics and primaries can pervert the democratic process. But, I digress.

My political frustrations are not anomalous—many feel the way I do; embittered, fatigued, disillusioned or outright apathetic to the efficacy of the ballot as the most effective tool toward securing our collective emancipation. Black America has had the vote, unobstructed—for more than 50 years. It’s done little to shift the conditions of the most vulnerable among us.

For too long, elected leaders have failed Black constituencies. Still, election cycles remain primetime for exploitation Black suffrage. We’re oft lectured about the critical necessity of our vote.  Every election is a moment of national reckoning. Every ballot fraught with the weight of obligation. And our salvation is always on the other side of Election Day.

The sway of political winds seem to relegate progress for Black bodies to the American imagination. Time and again, we’re expected to trust that incremental gains for the few aren’t an aside and told to press forward and channel our angst into votes.

And we do, in spite of the inequities that persist.

Between 1970 and 2012, the number of Black elected officials rose from fewer than 1,500 to more than 10,000 – culminating with the election of a Black President, twice. Spawned by victories that sought to shift the power paradigm nationally by ensuring full access to political rights for Black Americans, our socio-political evolution has not translated to socio-economic advancement. In fact, it’s had an inverse effect. The wealth gap has deepened post-Civil Rights, while declines in homeownership and incomes have further decimated the Black poor and middle class. This regression has materialized, largely, through the ballot box.

The shift in Black political life from the politics of rights to the politics of resources has had diminutive results. Despite a marked rise in Black political participation and electoral representation – our concentrated political power has shifted little by way of public policy. And according to a 2015 study by Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago School of Law, Black Americans continue to fare worse than whites in converting their policy preferences into law. Stephanopoulos notes,

“As support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline… A proposal with no black support has a 40 percent chance of becoming law, [while] one enjoying unanimous approval has only a 30 percent probability of enactment.”

I discussed these findings with a group of colleagues over drinks last week. I wanted to gauge their outlook in light of the forthcoming midterm election cycle. Incessant appeals to turn out the Black vote have felt inescapable and have prompted reflection as to whether a political system built on anti-Black racism could ever be relied upon to secure Black liberation. In light of all we’ve bore witness to in the last decade—a Black presidency followed by the rise of the radical right, the answers we arrived at felt inconclusive.

Still, I was deemed unreasonable for skirting ‘my responsibility’ to vote.

Therein lies the inherent contradiction of being a Black American voter. We’re told to capitulate to a system whose institutional forces make those we elect irresponsive to our needs. We concede to descriptive representation—excited to see ourselves superficially reflected in a political system built on our exclusion and a political process relying on our tempered complicity to an anti-Black status-quo. And this serves a short-sighted purpose.

Dr. Christina Greer, Professor of Political Science at Fordham University noted in a recent conversation,

“America is built on four political pillars—capitalism, anti-Black racism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Black folk have been fighting against these forces for generations. Political power has been the most reliable means to ensure incremental progress is achieved, imperfect as it may be. At worst, our votes can elect representatives that serve as a stopgap to racist ideologues. Ultimately, that’s an end worth achieving.”

I can’t argue with that. But, it’s getting increasingly difficult to compromise the integrity of my vote, only to be served disappointment.

Earlier this year, Kanye West caught the ire of Black America for stating that slavery was a choice. I find a similar thread between the rhetoric around Black voter responsibility and Kanye’s ‘slavery was a choice’ rant. It all stems from the same intellectual argument that Black folk can, and are ultimately responsible, for saving themselves within a racist political/economic system.

I question how disingenuous—dangerous, even—that assertion can be when history has proven how easily Black self-determination can be up-ended.

If voting is indeed an avenue to liberation, before I cast another ballot I’m interested in examining why electoral politics continues to fail us and what can be done about it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: AFROPUNK supports Free Speech andFree Thought. We also encourage you to Vote on November 6, 2018. Check out the “Skeptic” episode of Solutions Sessions available now on iTunes.

Negrographs will be a weekly column exploring contemporary Black politics by Richard S. Brookshire III. Through in-depth analysis on political figures, provocative public policy, and controversial political moments—his aim is to deepen understanding of how current political realities fit within a historical framework and the Black political tradition while interrogating the belief systems of both Black political radicals and reformists to examine their efficacy in confronting the anti-Black truths within American politics.


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