The Burden of the Black Vote

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My earliest ideas around the voting patterns of Black folks came by way of my late mother. The year was 1992 and a saxophone-playing southern governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton was seeking to make George HW Bush a one-term president. On the night Bill Clinton made his iconic appearance on the Arsenio Hall show, sporting jet-black shades and blowing his sax, my mother said something that stuck with me about the cultural norms of the political parties.

One of her hopes for a Bill Clinton victory was based on how lively she assumed his inauguration ball might be, compared to what she described as the boring inauguration balls Republicans hosted when their candidates were elected. My mother was one of many Black adults who viewed Bill Clinton as a “soulful” white man. I do not recall her referring to him as “the first Black president,” but I do remember her having a pronounced appreciation for his swag.

Of course, this was before we would later know him to be a mass incarceration enthusiast, and before hints of sexual predation/an all-out affair would send his morality into a tailspin. My mother hoped for a president who would not only represent the side of the binary that allegedly was more compassionate to the plight of Black America but also the side not obnoxiously stiff and soulless.

Mom wanted her prez to have some drip. And after years of Regan and Bush Republican leadership, Bill Clinton carried the type of sauce Black folks were craving. Black adults in the ’90s were hoping for a leader that could soften the blow of crack-era/Reaganomics oppression, and it would be an added bonus to have one that seemed relatable. At the time, Bill could have had his pick of cookout invitations.

He even looked like he exercised discernment when choosing whose potato salad was the best.

Fast forward 28 years, three presidents and a new millennium after the Clinton administration, and Black voters are on the verge of participating in one of the most consequential presidential elections in modern American history. The Black vote is being courted, galvanized, and coerced in ways never before. Yes, stakes are considerably high, but the script is also pretty damn familiar.

November 2020 is the showdown of the septuagenarians. In the red corner, there is the fascist-leaning incumbent/ex-reality star who has made a mockery of democracy. In the blue corner, there is a former vice president who authored the crime bill that the aforementioned sax-playing president signed into law, desecrating a generation of Black Americans in one fell swoop.

There is no need to belabor the point of how Americans ended up with these choices. We know how the Democratic primaries played out and we know what happened four years ago that brought the current occupant into the Oval Office. And as clashes persist between extreme ideologies such as Antifa and the MAGA faithful, one specific voting bloc is, per usual, being carefully examined: Black American voters.

It is of no surprise that the Black vote is both a critical talking point for politicos and the focal point of both sides of the aisle, albeit for different reasons. Republicans by and large make no secret about their disinterest in genuinely pursuing the Black vote. They do, however, spend a healthy amount of time sowing seeds of skepticism about the Democratic party to Black people. Many Republican leaders know their party has horrid representation under Donald Trump’s leadership, but still rely on pitching Democrats as the party of empty promises to Black folks.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president to the nation’s first Black president, understands the cultural and electoral capital connected to the Black vote. When he was trailing Bernie Sanders’ early momentum heading into Super Tuesday, he got a co-sign from Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member in Congress, a move that aggressively shifted the tide in his favor.

When he needed a boost from Black cultural tastemakers, he went on the highest-rated syndicated talk show in urban radio and told Black folks they weren’t really Black if they did not vote for him, and wildly enough many Black folks agreed with him on social media.

And when he needed to assure loyalty from the Democrats’ most fervent and consistent voting base (Black women), he chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate, despite her political record that was viewed by many as antithetical to Black progress.

The decision to have Harris as his running mate has deepened his connection with Black women voters/political influencers, sparking #winwithblackwomen to trend on social media and beyond, and effectively causing amnesia for some of the same folks who did not support Kamala in her primary bid for the White House.

Both sides of the binary recognize the power in harnessing and/or suppressing the Black vote. Both sides are deeply versed in the history and cultural obligation tied to the Black vote as both sides have been a beneficiary of it at some point in American history. Both sides understand that the “soul of America” is more often than not saved or scorched depending on the mobilization of the Black vote.

But what does it mean for Black Americans to consistently shoulder the burden of directing America’s moral compass, when America has historically been unconcerned with whether Black lives were coming or going?

Many Americans view Donald Trump’s presidency as a total abomination of leadership and decency, and many of these Americans happen to be white. When these white Americans go to cast their ballot, they have the privilege of voting either for Joe Biden or against Donald Trump. This sounds like the same idea but has a different connotation for the average Black voter.

Black voters have never had the privilege of voting against a candidate that was not structurally anti-Black. Not even Barack Obama. The presentation and identity of American presidents may differ, but each of them has governed under a system of laws and policies that are systemically averse to Black people.

And therein lies the difference of carrying the burden of voting against someone who is an embarrassment to you as a countryman and voting against an apparatus designed to upkeep the second-class status of your citizenship. It is the distinction of voting in opposition to a candidate you loathe, and the impossible mission of selecting a candidate that will not overtly or covertly do the bidding of the apparatus.

Black voters are often charged with the task of “saving democracy” with our vote, lest our citizenry be a failed experiment in freedom. Whether it is Michelle Obama telling us to float skyward while Republican AND Democratic leadership drag us through the pits of hell or tactical voter shaming that does not always take into account a lack of access/suppression, Black folks who make it to the polls are often saddled with guilt and an obligation that typically takes precedent over the information we need to make the most sound decisions for ourselves and our communities.

That degree of civic, cultural and communal lift is not the heaviness of the average white voter. Which in and of itself exposes a different outlook on freedom when your vote, or the lack thereof, is not considered as beneficial or detrimental to the continued disenfranchisement of your people.

Still, civic responsibility is a real thing and if you are a Black reader, let me not leave you with the impression that you should not participate in the process. I am lobbying for our vote to come from a place of true liberation. This is not a nod to some Kanye West-ish “free thinker” bullshit rhetoric, nor is it an endorsement of shame-centered rhetoric from “trusted” Black voices that demand we exercise our vote without considering nuance.

This is simply a reminder that the personal is always political, and we should not follow any oppressive decree that only seeks to siphon our vote with no regard for how the outcome actually impacts us.

It is my hope that we deeply engage in the value of our local politics and are informed about down-ballot candidates and policy recommendations. I hope we are not so ensnared in the cult of personality/identity politics that come with presidential elections, that we lose sight of the political power we hold in non-presidential campaign years.

I hope our vote feels more like a privilege than a cross to bear. Because if the privilege to vote is a hallmark of American life, we should only view it as such and not be expected to carry it as anything other than just that. That is a freedom dream I don’t see manifesting during this election cycle, but in the spirit of setting intentions, something we should internalize.

Our entire American existence has been rooted in burden, sacrifice and commitment to a nation that continues to have commitment issues with us. Let’s do what we gotta do in November, but also continue to push this democracy to live up to its sales pitch of equality and to lighten the load of our civic duty.