By Rev. Dr. Earl Trent,
The fires are now out. The looting has stopped. Michael Brown has been buried. The militarized occupation forces have been withdrawn, the media storm has begun to subside and the investigations have begun. Media pundits are scrambling to deliver lessons learned and strategies are being offered and promoted to insure justice and “not let this moment pass.” The widely embraced strategy is to embark on a massive voter registration drive and get out the vote campaign. Chiefly this is in response to the fact that the largely black town of Ferguson has a virtually all white local government and police force. The idea is voting can remove the bad folks from office and help to ensure justice is done.
My father was a builder. He had a saying “Use the right tool and do the job right.” If you need to hammer a nail you can use the flat end of a wrench, a pair of pliers, shovel or even a brick or a rock. They are all serviceable in a “make do” situation. But the most efficient and best way to build something that will last is to use a hammer to hammer a nail.
Conducting voter registration drives and turning out the vote on an election day is like using a wrench, pliers or rock to hammer a nail. It will “make do” but voting alone will not make the kind of systemic changes in Ferguson, MO or anywhere else in Black America if we want justice and a better way of life. I know this goes against what many of our civil rights leaders and politicians tell us but the numbers tell a different story.
In the 2008 election 96% of African Americans voted for Barack Obama. In 2012 election analysis by the Pew Research Center discovered that not only did President Obama garner more than 90% of the Black vote. Blacks voted at a greater percentage of their population than any other group including for the first time whites. In other words not only did we register and turn out in a hostile environment, we aggregated our vote and the result- not one piece of legislation specifically targeted to the economic well being of Black Americans was passed.
Apologists for the administration allowed Obama and the democratic administration to claim that he was the president of all America not just the president of Black America. Therefore nothing can be done specifically for blacks. This is false for two reasons. One in the popular vote almost half the population did not elect him to be president. They are not expecting much to be done for them anyway. Secondly the fundamental rule of politics is quid pro quo, “something for something.” I vote you into office; you then must do something for me. Or to put it another way, you dance with the one that “bring” you to the dance. Or to the victor go the spoils. Any way you say it, slice it, or dice it, the loyal constituency deserves the most attention. Having demonstrated consistently by our vote the Obama administration and Democratic Party has an enormous debt to pay.
The argument is often made that all politics are local. A New York Times article assessing progress since the 1963 Voting Rights Act stated “Forty-three years ago there were 1,469 black elected officials nationwide, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; in 2011 there were roughly 10,500 such officials.” However the socio- economic picture for blacks remains bleak. In terms of net-worth Blacks are at the bottom of all racial and ethnic groups.
An excellent example is Prince George County, Maryland. It is the wealthiest predominately black county in the country having the highest number of black millionaires, the highest number of PHDs, and the vast majority of elected officials are black. It also holds the distinction in Maryland as the county most adversely affected by the 2008 recession outside of the city of Baltimore. It has fewer services, less businesses and much less federal government facilities than the neighboring predominantly white county of Montgomery. Voting alone, electing officials alone does not change the economic well being of a black community. Voting is the illusion of power. It gives us choices but does not enable us to make decisions.
Here is a reality check. The police officer did not care whether Michael Brown voted in the last election. He was not concerned whether he was a registered democrat, republican or independent. His behavior was shaped by an attitude of suspicion. Two black young men walking in the street = threat. U.S. attorney general Eric Holder shared with some of the residents of Ferguson his own story of being stopped in the upscale neighborhood of Georgetown in Washington DC. While running with his cousin to get to a movie theater on time police officers drive up, flash their lights and command them to stop. Holder was a federal prosecutor at the time. It did not matter. Two adult black men running in a white upscale neighborhood = threat. The attitude that labeled Holder and Michael Brown suspicious was not one affected by voting patterns. It would not have mattered if it were Election Day and they both had an “I voted “stickers on their chest.
These attitudes change only when societal perception is altered. Societal perception of Black Americans is that we are a weak powerless group illegitimately trying to take advantage of hard working American society. Until we alter that perception we will revisit Ferguson, MO again and again and again.
I am not saying do not vote nor hold voter registration. What I am saying is voting alone it is not the right tool for the job that needs to be done, if we want the job done right.
Reverend Doctor Earl D. Trent Jr. currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is the author of A Challenge to the Black Church