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Column: Black votes count, even if results for Black voters seem scarce

A voter behind a curtain in a row of voting booths
Lonely voting in a primary in Concord, N.H.
(Joseph Prezioso / AFP/Getty Images)

There has never been a Black speaker of the House.

I’ve been thinking about that piece of trivia a lot since the day George Floyd was murdered in May 2020. When put to a vote, the country twice elected a Black person to be president before white liberals in Congress could once elect a Black person to be third in line. In our entire history, that has been the case. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Washington politics. If national politics were all that mattered, I could understand why some Black people would be tempted to ask themselves “why bother?”

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

That is certainly the sentiment a lot of people felt was being conveyed in a tweet that legendary rapper Luther Campbell posted on Sunday, asking followers to “give me five reasons why Black people should Vote in the next election. Give me five BLACK promises that has been fulfilled by politicians in the last election. MAYOR &PRESIDENT”

Will the fringe be able to keep the GOP congresswoman in office now that she has shown herself to be wildly unfit?

Journalist Jemele Hill responded: “Serious question: How will not voting help?”

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Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, replied with a long thread that included examples of kept promises nationally and locally, as well as how elections impact timely issues such as school board efforts to ban books. After tracking a record 729 books challenged in 2021, the American Library Assn. found the “most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.”

We all know voting for a school board candidate may not be sexy, but in 2020 a school district in Texas went to court to try to make a student cut his locs, and in 2021 a school district in Pennsylvania banned books about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. So as you can see, school board elections matter too.

For Campbell and anyone else who may see how the antics of Sen. Joe Manchin III block national action and may find themselves questioning the importance of voting, I have one word: Ferguson.

A documentary about drag balls made all the difference for me as a young gay man. Positive representation matters.

Do not ever forget the lessons of Ferguson.

Over time we learned more about that St. Louis suburb’s politics. Such as how it was possible for a century-old city which at the time Michael Brown was killed was 66% Black to have never had a Black mayor and only one Black person on the City Council. That was the case in 2014. The result? A Department of Justice investigation found “a pattern of civil rights violations by local police” and said the city manager, John Shaw, built the city’s budget around revenue from those violations. In fact, the report said that when the city’s 2012 court fees surpassed $2 million, Shaw told the police chief, “Awesome! Thanks!”

Texas state leaders working to erase the votes of people of color are one face of the same movement that leads a gunman to target Black people.

So when you’re watching the news or scrolling through headlines and you find yourself sitting on the couch wondering “why bother?” Ferguson is why you bother. The fires we all watched on television late into those chaotic nights were not the only stories. There were lessons to be learned.

Shaw, who resigned after the report became public, was hired by the City Council. The city manager hired the police chief whose department was found to have that “pattern of civil rights violations” that funded the city. It’s tough to accept the notion that the council members responsible for this city government represented the people of Ferguson. But when it was reported that only 12% of registered voters even cast ballots in the municipal election preceding Brown’s death, it was easy to see what happened.

The low turnout of 2010 allowed the far right to seize power. If moderates can’t get out the vote this fall, it will happen again.

That recap is not meant to shame but to remind frustrated voters of why we should always bother.

This primary season, seven Republican secretaries of state have either faced or soon will be facing at least one GOP opponent who echoed President Trump’s lies about a stolen election. On Tuesday, Brad Raffensperger, who resisted Trump’s pressure to “find” the votes to overturn Georgia’s results from November 2020, avoided a runoff by just three percentage points. In Texas, less than 18% of registered voters cast a ballot in a primary that included a criminally indicted attorney general who actually sued to overturn the election results in other states.

The presidency matters, and so does Congress, but those folks won’t be the ones deciding whether to indict a police officer accused of a violation. That power typically belongs in the hands of locally elected officials. As do school closings, parking ticket fines, zoning … most of the issues citizens must wrestle with on a daily basis.

At the moment, nearly 100 statewide ballot measures are set to be on the ballot in 33 states in November. Georgians are voting on whether to suspend the pay of public officers indicted for a felony. In Illinois, citizens are voting to enshrine in the state constitution the right to unionize. Nevada is looking to increase public school funding. In Maryland, it’s about legalizing recreational marijuana. In Oregon, banning slavery as a punishment for a crime.

That body in a barrel that was found in Lake Mead won’t be the last crazy headline brought to us by climate change.

There’s more to voting than deciding who goes to Washington. It’s easy to forget that when trapped in a cable news bubble and when national tragedies, like this week’s school shooting in Texas, are greeted with opinions about effects on the midterms before we’ve even learned the names of souls that were lost. We become conditioned to focus on the national offices and not think about the rest, even though it’s “the rest” that may decide whether rape victims are forced to bear the children of their attackers.

I don’t fault Campbell for expressing a frustration I’ve heard often in the Black community. But I do hope he and his equally frustrated followers spend time considering information like that in Ifill’s response. Because as disappointing as Washington politics can be, voters must remember it is not the only place where elections matter.

@LZGranderson


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