The Democrats hosted their first candidate debate on October 13th and until today, I hadn’t watched it. Why? I sort of already knew the script. I could have told you that we’d hear about guns, commitment to LGBT rights, the middle class and perhaps “Black Lives” mixed in somewhere. That’s about what happened. The message I received was pretty straightforward: the only test acknowledged this cycle for securing black votes is the ability to recite a hashtag. After that, candidates need only return to the business of white affairs and they knew it.
Black folks have been voting Democratic since Roosevelt in 1936, roughly. To say it succinctly, the Democratic Party assumes they’ll get our vote and they typically do in national elections. With decades of reliable data, why would Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or any other candidate go out of their way to address issues salient to their most reliable voters? Yes, black lives do matter but so do black paychecks. The nation’s unemployment rate hit a seven year low this year of 5.5 percent. At the same time, black women’s unemployment rate ticked up to 8.9 percent. Black lives do matter but so does black wealth. The typical black household has but 6 percent of the wealth of the typical white household. As we embark on a new national election cycle, blacks are still battling issues the country allegedly solved decades ago. Many banks, such as Wells Fargo, still can’t seem to practice fair lending when it comes to borrowers of color (as an aside, why are black folks still depositing their funds in these institutions). Black mortgages ought to matter, too.
There is no shortage of issues we could highlight impacting black Americans. Even so, on that debate stage, there was a definite shortage of attention devoted to any of those issues. All candidates needed to say was “Black Lives Matter” and folks were satisfied that the candidate in question stood with us. Well I say hell no. We cannot simply hand over our votes that cheaply. Lest we forget, our vote has value: not only due to the promise of democracy but in fact the price for black suffrage was paid for in much blood. Or did we forget that black folks could hardly vote just a few decades ago?
Our vote is valuable because of the price we paid for it. So then, how can we give it so freely, so cheaply? We cannot. If we do, we submit ourselves to the increasing racial wealth gap. If we do, we submit ourselves to an ever expanding achievement gap in our schools. All these issues are particular to black communities and as such, black voters must demand policy prescriptions just as particular. Indeed, if the Obama administration can recognize and allocate resources to the peculiar needs of Holocaust survivors living in poverty in the U.S-a nation which did not commit those atrocities- then certainly candidates can recognize the particular circumstances of blacks that stem from actions this nation actually did commit and in many cases still does.
Black votes matter because of the sweat and blood that gave rise to them. Yet we must never lose sight of the fact that our vote is actually valuable with respect to electoral mathematics. While no group ever votes up to their potential, blacks still made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2012. Further, blacks actually had a higher voter participation rate than whites in that cycle. In fact, even in many states that implemented voter ID laws in an attempt to suppress minority voting- Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana and Virginia for example- blacks still had higher turnout than whites. During the 2012 cycle, critical states like Ohio, Virginia and Michigan all had electorates that were at least 15 percent black. No candidate can realistically afford to lose black support and win a national election. Not possible.
Given the performance of Democratic candidates, I have little expectation of the Republicans in their remaining debates, either. Black votes should matter, too. Our task is to make it so. In this cycle, we must organize black institutions, activists, slacktivists and all others to force this issue and demand that candidates on both sides of the aisle put forth policy proposals specific to our needs. They need us, not the other way around. Our vote is valuable and cannot be reduced to a hashtag.