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Let’s begin this piece with a brief trip down memory lane, shall we? The year: 2004. John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee looking to unseat a marginally approved George W. Bush in his pre-Katrina, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” days. America was deeply engaged in an ongoing conflict in Iraq and “Dubya” was riding a surge of patriotism sparked by the nation’s response to the tragedies of 9/11. However, his warmongering/one percent favoring slip was showing and 2004 was supposed to be the year that galvanized the hip hop generation to make him a one-term president.
Enter the “Vote or Die” social campaign spearheaded by hip-hop mogul, Sean “Diddy” Combs. “Vote or Die” was marketed as an aggressive effort to convince younger, culturally fluid voters to head to the polls and although the campaign did not explicitly endorse John Kerry, the implication for “Vote Or Die” was to not-so-subtly replace the conversative from Texan with the Democrat from Massachussetes. Despite its best efforts to posit itself as a nonpartisan entity, “Vote Or Die” undoubtedly received overwhelming support from liberal Hollywood elites and was powered by the social and cultural capital of one of the most visible Black men in America.
We know how the story ended. John Kerry did not have the charisma, political acumen or cultural capital to defeat the incumbent. Bush was re-elected. Poverty, death and inequality persisted. America carried on as business as usual.
It could be argued that the spirit of “Vote Or Die” would later manifest in the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The targeted, social media-assisted voter coalescence for Obama was for all intent and purpose, a more sophisticated version of “Vote Or Die.” In addition to the prevalence of the social media era that was unavailable to Kerry, Obama was also the beneficiary of the political pendulum that comes in eight year cycles when the nation desires a change in party regime. Obama’s ascendance was symbolic, celebratory and had varying levels of substantive impact on Black Americans. His presentation alone afforded him cultural capital with Black voters that even Bill Clinton, who Black folks (egregiously) coined as the “first Black president,” was unable to deploy no matter how many saxophones he blew into.
But by the time the first ACTUAL Black president left office, the Black Lives Matter movement was fully functioning out of necessity to validate Black lives lost by way of state sanctioned violence all across the country. Although Obama benefited from an incredibly diverse voter constituency, Black Americans specifically voted for him in numbers upwards of 90% for both of his terms. We cheered him on while eulogizing a generation of Black men, women and children killed by American police. We voted and died and kept dying.
It is always difficult to argue the significance of Black folks voting, no matter how small the progress of binary voting may yield, because of the historical context connected to the Black vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not some Stone Age measure of civic increase, it is a 55 year old legislative act that has hardly been around long enough to be a grandparent in human form. By the time it was official, Black Americans had largely pivoted their vote to the Democratic Party, as the Republicans had long abandoned any of its previous emancipatory ideals. Black folks marched, rallied, signal boosted, and advocated for the power of our vote and America still found ways to disenfranchise us politically and/or kill us, despite an ideological shift that suggested that those who blatantly oppressed had switched sides of the aisle.
Because the game of procuring the Black vote is not a new one, both major parties orchestrate their own predictable versions of voter engagement. There are the inevitable church visits. The photo ops at Black community events. The talking points of crime reduction and strengthening education and increasing job availability.
Republicans rely on the rhetoric of failed Democratic policies as an approach to lure “free thinking” Black voters “off the plantation,” and Democrats often operate from the playbook of fear (of the GOP unknown) and familiarity as their primary method of voter retention. Specificity of policy that directly benefits Black voters is often blanketed underneath vague, one-size-fits-all assumptions. The common denominator of the Black experience is inequity/inequality, but there is a wide range of variables that make our individual lived experiences inequitable. And that is the nuance the establishment wing of both parties fail to comprehend.
I currently live in a state that bottoms out in virtually every quality of life category imaginable. I will soon be relocating to “greener pastures” statistically and though my relocation may offer better options for representation on a local level, generally speaking my voting options will still be relegated to who is least likely to cause injury to my community. Historically, this has been the low bar that politicians on all levels have easily cleared to acquire the Black vote.
But there is no liberation connected to the proverbial lesser evil. Our freedom and equity has generationally been denied, while both parties have attempted to crown each other as the victors in the blame game of who has failed us the most.
Still, in this excruciating year called 2020, our options are still limited. (Sigh).