5 tips for engaging non-voters this election
Liberals blamed Black non-voters for Trump’s ascension, despite election interference and the majority of whites voting for Trump
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By Rann Miller
When speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama mentioned Donald Trump and the crowd responded with a chorus of boos. President Obama shot back immediately by chiding, “don’t boo, vote.” But former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of many Black people who sat out of the 2016 presidential election. His argument was that it would be hypocritical for him to vote because as one against a system of oppression he understood that “the oppressor isn’t going to allow you to vote your way out of your oppression.”
In our world of “hot takes” and overly exhaustive commentary, Kaepernick and other Black people who sat out the 2016 election were made the scapegoat for Donald Trump’s victory. Black and white liberals laid blame squarely on Black people who failed to exercise their right to vote for Trump’s ascension, despite proof of election interference and the majority of whites voting for Trump.
As the 2020 presidential election comes upon us, we should know that “voter shaming” is ineffective for encouraging non-voters to take part in the electoral process, and will never be effective. Telling folks not to boo but vote didn’t work in 2016 partly because it is dismissive of the sentiments fueling those boos and partly because of President Obama’s troubled tendency of chastising Black people. And while it is tempting to encourage voters and non-voters alike to vote for the candidate not named Donald Trump in 2020 — because of the hate Donald Trump produced — that is not a sincere and mindful way of engaging Black non-voters, or any non-voter for that matter.
I understand the desire to encourage Black non-voters to vote. However, this engagement shouldn’t be about changing their minds as much as it is about understanding the valid reasons why they don’t vote as you live out the valid reasons why you do. Engaging means actually accepting the belief in the often-quoted mantra that Black people are not a monolith.
Before you begin proselytizing the good news of voting to the heathen Black non-voter, here are five things to consider:
- Understand why Black non-voters don’t vote. It is easy to attack Colin Kaepernick, as did Stephen A. Smith. But how about Dr. W.E.B. DuBois? While many folks continue to say we must vote for the lesser of two evils, in 1956, DuBois said, “I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no ‘two evils’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names and it will be elected despite all I can say or do.”
Even among the most politically engaged Black people, a majority don’t believe that politicians take them seriously. Like Kaepernick and DuBois, there is a segment of the Black population that does not endorse the two party system or the fruits thereof. No matter who they have voted for, Black unemployment remains highest among all racial groups, the opportunity gap in schools remain tilted against Black children and police brutality remains a problem within our communities. Many Black non-voters attest to these things and more. Yet, Black people are consistently called upon to solve problems they did not create.
- Concede that Black non-voters aren’t the reason Donald Trump was elected president. Instead of focusing on who didn’t vote, let’s account for those who did. According to exit polling, fewer Black people voted for Donald Trump compared to other racial groups. Black people also only made up 10% of voters, while White people made up 74%. The majority of white voters, both men and women, voted for Donald Trump.
Black people (Black women specifically) almost single-handedly stopped Roy Moore from winning an Alabama senate seat. But guess who would have gotten the blame had he won? If you must focus on non-voters, note that 52% of non-voters were white compared to the 15% who were Black.
Further, what would have helped defeat Donald Trump in 2016 is had all Black votes been counted to begin with. Voter suppression tactics in Detroit, Wisconsin and Georgia helped sway the election to Trump. In fact, a report detailed how voter purging in particular is happening around the country. We have the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder to thank. Not to mention, there was that thing where Russia interfered in the election.
- Recognize why Black non-voters may not support “popular” candidates not named Donald Trump. Voting out Donald Trump can’t be the go-to argument for voting. White supremacy comes in many shades. That rationale wasn’t enough to get Hillary Clinton more votes. From the 1994 crime bill to welfare reform, Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate who didn’t deserve the Black vote.
Hopefully, Democrats learned that lesson after 2016, but I am not too sure. Joe Biden takes credit for that same crime bill largely responsible for the mass incarceration of Black people. Pete Buttigieg has a poor relationship and record with Black people as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Bernie Sanders continues to struggle to connect with Black people and it may get harder to do so since he no longer monopolizes the “progressive agenda.” Kamala Harris’ record of upholding an anti-Black criminal justice system as a prosecutor is a red flag for Black people.
Much in the same way that speaking Spanish won’t win Latinx votes, being the former VP under a Black man is not enough to get the vote of Black people. Neither is having Black skin or using slang or vernacular terms or eating fried chicken with Al Sharpton in Harlem or appearing on the Breakfast Club and breaking out the hot sauce. The more things change the more they stay the same.
- Live out the concrete reasons why you vote. Keri Hilson blasted Black people who did not vote because they were betraying the sacrifice to those who died for our right to vote. Newsflash to Keri Hilson and all others with that line of thinking – that’s no longer a good enough reason to compel Black folks to vote. In fact, it’s never been the defining reason.
Guilting people isn’t a concrete strategy to encourage folks to vote. If it were, legislation would be unnecessary to attempt to prevent racism. Arguing that others should vote for folks who will introduce, pass or sign legislation to increase minimum wage, make college affordable, implement adequate consequences for law enforcement who murder Black people, provide reparations for slavery, prevent gerrymandering, prevent prison gerrymandering, prevent voter suppression and eliminate the electoral college – an institution of enslavement – are all better than saying Black people died so you can vote.
If you choose to vote according to public policy decisions, that is your right as an American — a right freedom fighters died for. One reason why I vote is because I believe there is power in my vote, as there is power in my protest and boycott action. I understand when Malcolm X said, “the Whites are so evenly divided that every time they vote, the race is so close they have to go back and count the votes all over again. Which means that any bloc, any minority that has a block of votes that stick together, is in a strategic position.” However, it is not the place of the voter, who believes in any of that, to project it upon a Black non-voter as to why they must vote. Rather, it is incumbent upon us who vote to live out our belief in how we live; voting being one part of how we live. That’s important for all people to see.
- Listen to and learn from Black non-voters. There is a lot that we (voters) can gain from actually listening to our brothers and sisters who don’t vote. We can learn about the various modes of civic engagement they participate in that may in fact do more for Black people than the choices made at the ballot box. We can learn that choosing not to vote is not a passive but active decision; a choice whereby non-voters exert control over their political agency.We can learn that for some, voting is against their moral compass; choosing to not endorse a two-party system that has and continues to engage in colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. We can learn that the power is in the people who put the power behind the ballot and not in the ballot itself.
Doing these things is not about winning converts. Being better communicators means being more aware of the heart of our community. As we enter the meat of primary season, now is not the time to convince folks to vote or die. Rather, it is an opportunity to critically engage Black non-voters so that we all learn from each other to become better citizens of our world, and so that we encourage politicians to sincerely engage with them in order to become better citizens too. Or, you could keep doing the same old blaming and shaming and secure more of the same.
Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in Salon, AlterNet, and the Progressive, where I’m an education fellow. Follow him on Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ and on Instagram @urbanedmixtape.