Black History Month is like New Year's for racial progress: a moment to pause and reflect on accomplishments of the struggle, but also time for clear-eyed resolutions. And if 2017 showed us anything, it's that just one year after the our first black President left office, in some ways we have farther to go than ever. But this is a time for celebration. There are big opportunities on the horizon.
On November 6, the midterm elections—the voting day held half-way through every presidential term—are more than just a referendum (or a "how's my driving?") moment for Donald Trump. In fact, the 2018 midterms present an unprecedented opportunity for black America to attain representation. (Let's call it "getting the ballot.")
Here are three reasons why this is the year to get the ballot:
1 | THE TURNOVER IS REAL: This year, a genuinely massive amount of government is up for election: the entire House, one-third of the Senate, 34 governorships, and most state legislatures.
2 | THE BLACK VOTE'S POWER IS PROVEN: The special Senate election in Alabama last year showed the black vote is more important and impactful than ever. But this gospel comes with a caveat: If turnout dips even a little, the results could be disastrous. And over four-year cycles, turnout is historically lowest during, yep, the midterms.
3 | THIS EFFECTS OF THIS ELECTION WILL LAST OVER A DECADE: In 2018, gerrymandering and the judiciary are both on the line. On the local election level, the winners of this election will draw the political districts that will impact representation until well beyond 2030; on the national level, control of Congress could determine the laws (and the judges who interpret those laws) for maybe even longer. So now, let me do the math for you: This election is big time.
And if all that's not enough, as of this writing there are over 400 black women running for office on the local, state, and national level. That's an unprecedented number reflecting these vital times. (You can keep track of that at blackwomeninpolitics.com.)
So now that we've set the terms, let's dig in a bit. And we'll start by pulling back to see the forest for the trees.
It doesn't matter whether we are talking entertainment, sports, or politics, people won't get respect, or true change, until they've attained a degree of representation, be it in the hearts, minds, or the legislatures of their land. Granted, there are many means to affect change. Thurgood Marshall showed us the power of activism in the courtroom. MLK showed us the power of putting boots on the ground and crossing the bridge. And more recently, Colin Kaepernick demonstrated the power of bending a knee to the field.
But if you're not represented in the halls of power, if you don't have advocates playing the inside game, in the corridors of compromise and legislatures, then your body politic has no bones; your center just won't hold.
And we need representation now more than ever, because we've seen the same story over and again these past few years. Black cities are treated like black lives: under duress yet deprived of resources. This leads to miscarriages of justice that come from militaristic police forces with prejudicial perspectives, judiciaries stacked with unsympathetic appointees, contaminated water supplies, questionable tax spending, and the like.
One way to address all of this is by voting the right people into power.
CONTROL OF CONGRESS | When it comes to sheer volume of opportunities to put sympathetic folks in the seat of power, it doesn't get much better than 2018. As we said before, a huge portion of federal and state governments are up for election this November. We're talking about the entire House of Representatives (that's 435 seats) and one-third of the Senate (34 seats). Also over half of the nation's governorships (34 states) and at least half of state legislature seats across the country. That's a lot of government!
So what's really at stake with control of Congress, anyway? Well, if the Democrats can take control of either the House (possible) or the Senate (less likely), the Republicans lose their ability to smoothly send bills to the White House to become law. This is a necessary step to changing the momentum. And if the Democrats can somehow grab onto the Senate, they can hold up Trump's appointments to the judiciary indefinitely. (For the power of the judiciary, see the aforementioned activist lawyer-turned-Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall who used the courts to spark the civil rights movement.)
Right now the Senate is 51-49 in favor of Republicans; Democrats need to defend 25 of those seats, ten of which are in states that Trump won in 2016. The House looks a little easier: right now it's 241-194.
So which way will it all go? Well, if we look into our crystal ball and do some predicting, the available data cuts both ways. Historically speaking, the party with the White House—in this case, Republicans (technically speaking anyway)—tends to lose Congressional seats in midterm elections. (This bodes well for the "FDT" set.) But then again, during midterms, voter turnout tends to go down amongst youth and minority voters. (This basically means Democrats get lazy when a Presidency isn't on the line.)
But history isn't a perfect predictor, of course, because if it was then all the experts would have been right in 2016. And they weren't. This is a midterm election unlike any other we've experienced in our lifetimes because this is a president unlike any other anyone's experienced ever.
Just in Year One of #45, we've seen a surge in neo-Nazi behavior and seen it manifest in the Charlottesville protests and death; we've seen divisive rhetoric coming from the White House regularly, with the President reportedly calling Haiti and some African countries "shitholes"; we've seen marches and protests and hashtags going viral at unprecedented rates.
So the big question is: Will all the energy of protest that Trump is generating translate into more people voting?
Well, that's a big If. But as 2016 taught us, elections have actual consequences. Never forget this: Donald Trump may not have won the popular vote, and he may not have even won your home state, but he WON ENOUGH VOTES TO BECOME PRESIDENT. Granted, the electoral college was involved, but that's another conversation.
Your vote matters! Still don't believe it? Are the lessons of 2016 too ancient for you? Let's consider an even more recent example.
ALABAMA PROVED THE BLACK VOTE'S POWER | Dial it back to 2017, in Alabama, where the unthinkable happened: a Democrat won a Senate seat for the first time in 25 years in this deeply red state when challenger Doug Jones beat incumbent Republican Roy Moore. Now this was a messy contest. Moore ran a deeply bigoted campaign and faced rampant allegations of sexually predatory behavior toward multiple teenaged girls. But if we unpack the polling numbers, we find something remarkable.
Ninety-six percent of African Americans went for Democrat Jones, with the black vote counting for 30% of the electorate. Black women went even harder in the paint: they counted for 17% of the electorate, and went for the Democrat by a margin of 98% to 2%.
But the craziest number of all? Despite those percentages, Democrat Doug Jones won by just 1.5% of the popular vote. That is a razor-thin margin, and absolute proof that not only could he not have won without the near totality of the black vote, but in fact he would have been up a creek if even a small fraction of that vote decided to stay home.
In other words: The black vote really matters.
Now just imagine that result in elections across the nation? And imagine if even a fraction stays home?
This isn't to say that the Democrat party is the undisputed be-all for the black community. After the Jones election, Alabama native and NBA legend Charles Barkley offered some words that resonated nationally: "[Democrats have] taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time," Sir Charles bellowed. "They've always had our votes, and they have abused our votes, and this is a wake-up call…It's time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor."
Whether Democrats or Republicans (or some other party) are best situated to represent your interests is a question with a fluid answer. (Remember that the Republicans are the party of Lincoln; things can change!) But political parties aside, the most important factor in having your interests represented in a democracy is having election districts that reflect your community.
GERRYMANDERING IS ON THE LINE | And that brings us to gerrymandering. What is gerrymandering? Well, it's an insidious old political trick in which the people in power in local government carve the map up into districts that minimize the influence of opposing interests, and to their party's advantage. (Unsurprisingly, this usually occurs in such a manner as to minimize racial or socioeconomic influence.) This photo, via The Washington Post, illustrates it:
Electoral districts are drawn after every census, to accommodate for movements and migration of people through space. Censuses occur every ten years; the last one was in 2010, the next is in 2020. So we're seeing new districts drawn in 2021, and most of the people who are in charge of that process are elected to four-year terms.
In other words: The people who win the 2018 elections will largely be the ones drawing those district lines in 2020. And those district lines are going to be in place until 2030, or maybe more. Between the gerrymandering and the judicial nominations, 2018 is more than just an election. It's a turning point.
So yes, the midterms of 2018 represent a genuine opportunity for black America. But they represent a dire warning. We've seen the basis for a new movement foment in the realms of activism; this is the chance to translate that energy into the foundation for real structural change. Play it right, and this body's got bones. Play it wrong, and the present state of affairs will take even deeper root.
So, are you going to vote? Now that we're all on the same page, it's time to start thinking about the issues at play this year, and the people out there doing the work to implement them.
Over the course of the week, we'll take a closer look at 2018's big issues, and the politicians and activists to watch. And so it continues.
Black history can never be forgotten, but the future of our Black America is something to be shed light on. Black culture's ownership of its leverage and economic impact in sports, film/television, fashion, and music is being unapologetically claimed. Get ready for the #NewBlackRenaissance.