In the midst of the two-party, seemingly now two-candidate, political brawl this country finds itself engaged in, there are young black voters who are saying no to politics as usual, no to a Democratic Party that has morphed into a moderate Republican Party, and no to a Republican Party that believes in big government only when it encompasses corporate welfare, bloated military and tax loopholes for the wealthy—while jumping the shark into a dark abyss of blatant racism, misogyny, xenophobia and an aversion to scientific facts.
As Leah Wright Rigueur writes in the New York Times, these “are young people who shun two-party politics altogether, critical of a flawed system that all too often marginalizes black voices and needs.”
“Around election time every year, African Americans are constantly told that those who do not vote are disparaging the legacy of the civil rights movement and those who died in the struggle for the ballot,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. “It is a simplistic formulation that reduces that historic movement to a struggle to choose between this politician or that politician, when that movement was about so much more.”
She’s absolutely right. Our ancestors did not die simply for the right to vote. They were slain fighting for the right to autonomy; they were beaten because they fought against inequities and inequality. Voting was merely the conduit through which they thought success would be attained. It was supposed to provide access—access to the life, freedom, liberty and pursuit of happiness that textbooks and fairy tales tell us about. Yet here we are, being told that to vote on principle, to vote for whom we believe in, is endangering the United States of America, and our liberal friends call that progress with a straight face.
For many people of color in this country, particularly black people, the past is always prologue. Still, we are asked to forgive and forget that policies implemented by President Ronald Reagan were expanded by President Bill Clinton, and that policies implemented by President George W. Bush were expanded by President Barack Obama. We are expected to forget, as W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1956, “that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no ‘two evils’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. There is no third party.”
We are told that refusing to buy into a system that has “For Sale” signs on our children’s backs is dangerous and that we owe it to the future of the democracy to push our principles to the side for the greater good.
We are expected to hide beneath our beds, cowering in the dark, afraid of the Republican bogeyman known as Donald Trump, when our time would be just as well spent searching for an honest politician with a lantern in the sunlight.
We are told to walk along the smooth road of “negative peace,” the preferred route for many white moderates who have never been victims of perpetual, systemic violence. The type of person who, according to Martin Luther King Jr. (pdf), says, “‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
This is why, according to Taylor, centering politicians in black liberation has never been effective.
“In many elections, people are faced with choosing between two elected officials who are often full of campaign promises and short on postelection action,” Taylor said. “It gets tiring, and people begin to feel like their vote does not matter. … That’s not a prescription not to vote, but it is to say that we need to tap into the larger legacy of the civil rights movement—which is that it is the struggle itself that makes the difference in black people’s lives.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has done more to bring awareness and potential action to stop police abuse in black communities than any elected official has ever done,” Taylor added. “It is through organizing and building the necessary social movements where we are at our strongest and stand the best chance to transform our neighborhoods and communities.”
When it comes to the necessity of voting to bring about change, the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a Bayard Rustin fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation who has been on the front lines of the Movement for Black Lives, says that both internal and external pressure to cast a ballot is rooted in this nation’s dark history.
“There is a flat and unsophisticated analysis that fetishizes voting,” Sekou says. “Voting has a particular meaning in black communities because it has blood on the ballot. The nation was so recalcitrant and so hard-hearted that it didn’t even want black folks to participate in a morally bankrupt system, and continues to attempt to thwart the basic right of a citizen to elect their leaders in the context of a morally bankrupt system in an attempt to confine democratic energy into what’s ultimately a dog-and-pony show every election cycle.
“Should we vote? Yes,” he continued. “But voting is like marching: Ain’t nothing changed with it, and ain’t nothing going to change without it…like prayer, without works it's dead. It’s harm reduction, that’s all. We’re just trying to give the democracy a clean needle.”
There are those who believe that working within the two-party construct is the more effective way forward, and that is their right. Change can come—indeed, it must come—from both inside and outside corrupt walls of power.
Still, as more black voters refuse to swallow the red and blue pills of American politics after centuries of “first steps” and neglected campaign promises, they have also earned the right to just say no.