Voting In Black America: Right, Privilege Or Responsibility?

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Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-MO)To vote or not to vote, that has been the question for many Black Americans who have become disenchanted with President Barack Obama.

It is not so much that he’s different from any other Democratic candidate; truth be told, on some innate level the issue arises because he looks like us and we’re much quicker to hold “our own” to either a higher standard or one of complete blind loyalty that heretofore has been absent in executive level politics. If one looked deeply enough, there is fault — and favor — to be found with either of these philosophies, but at their respective roots is an emotional attachment to the voting process that disallows many citizens of color to vote on policy and not identity politics.

This dynamic was on full display when Congressional Black Caucus chairman, Emanuel Cleaver, made a statement that was both stereotypical and revealing.

“That’s why I become so angry at any African-American who refuses to vote. They are not worth the color if they don’t vote,” Cleaver told his fellow congressmen in D.C. yesterday during a forum on voters’ rights. “They ought to give us their color back. Their African-American credentials need to be snatched if they don’t.” He reminded the audience of the challenges African Americans had to overcome in order to vote. Black voters often had to take literacy tests and pay steep taxes in order to cast a ballot. Cleaver called the decision not to vote “an insult to the ancestors and the people who brought us to where we are right now.” “There’d be no Black Caucus but for the black men and women who fought and died that we might have an opportunity to gather here in Washington that there would be 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.”

 There it is. The emotional tug that pulls Black Americans in to vote because of the symbolism of it all. Because of what our ancestors had to go through is the clarion call that we hear, because voting on what we’re going through today hasn’t really improved matters — let the unemployment numbers tell it. This is not to say that individuals shouldn’t vote. It is to say that the fight was for individuals to have the same rights that White citizens had, not for Black Americans to move en masse to the polls and check a box with all the awareness of zombies from ‘Night of the Living Dead.’

What if everyone Cleaver addressed in that room were Black Republicans? That speech probably would have gone a bit differently. His point seemed to not be that Black people had the right to vote, but the responsibility to vote a certain way — and for some the privilege lies in the choice.

Let’s be clear: I find Black people who don’t take part in the political process sadly misdirected if their purpose is to seek equality on all playing fields, from education to unemployment. But there are those who see through the mirage of democratic equality and choose to live unfettered by rules forged in systemic racism and classism.There’s nothing wrong with that.

But if equality, not separatism, is the endgame, then voting — in local and state elections not trapped in the unethical web of the electoral college — is clearly a pre-requisite.

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