Nowhere does the question “What’s the next step?” carry more significance than in black America. Safe to say that most black voters feel like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, repeatedly slain by aliens on a violent beachhead one day and repeatedly waking up the next in a dopey haze of “Did that just happen?”
Many are still grieving the fact that their first black president will be replaced by a quick-buck billionaire who founded his political reputation on baseless, racist Birther fiction. That’s a hard pill to swallow as the consequences of a Donald Trump presidency roll in fast like the dark clouds before a tornado.
But one unnoticed outcome of this election emerged from the haze: Black people have very, very little political skin in this new game. In fact, while we went to bat strong for every other voting bloc’s cause, no one went fully to bat for ours. We were out there strong for Latinos against building an immigration wall, strong for Muslims (many South Asian) against an immigration ban and doubly strong for outraged white women who seemed united against a serial sex predator in the White House.
Yet, in the end, black voters were the only demographic group that voted overwhelmingly against Trump—88 percent for Clinton—while everyone else gave themselves electoral leverage to work with: Twenty-nine percent of Latinos, 29 percent of Asians and a whopping 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Even a plurality of white millennial voters, 48 percent, went with Trump.
We … got … played. And given the gravity of the situation, emotional protest politics won’t be near enough. Not saying you should normalize your views of the next president, forgive and forget, or even take a “deep breath” (as Oprah, taken out of context, was unfairly criticized for suggesting). But black America must—now more than ever—get extra creative about how it skillfully navigates the uncertain and rather treacherous political territory ahead.
The world’s not ending. We’re not all going to die (even though President Barack Obama is now spending extra time with Sunkist getting him up to speed on everything). However, perhaps there is a multilayered approach to help us identify political and institutional opportunities for empowerment, which is much more impactful than crafting clever fits on social media. Here are several ways to go about that:
Since last Tuesday, there have been no official indications that black members of Congress, black state legislators or black mayors, collectively, had a formal blueprint laid out. Official Twitter feeds for the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the African American Mayors Association were strangely mum on the subject. No official press statements were even released by any of these leading umbrella organizations representing black elected officials.
Former Colorado Senate President and Obama administration appointee Peter Groff agrees that black political leaders should have immediately issued public guidance on next steps.
“It gives them a marker, puts them in the national conversation and spotlight, and gets people talking,” Groff explains to The Root. “True, these organizations should be more policy-centered and steer away from the politics. But their members and their constituents need direction.”
We should probably stop waiting for the next President Obama or other perceived political messiah and work with what we’ve got: nearly 10,000 black elected officials throughout the nation on the state, local and county levels, including boards of education, judges and sheriffs. The challenge: putting them all on the same big mission page.
Accumulating and expanding political power locally and regionally where black communities are heavily concentrated could be an effective form of unified political protection—if done right. It’s a bottom-up approach that also looks to mold fresh, new political talent from the ashes.
As soon-to-be NBCSL Chair and state Rep. Greg Porter (D-Ind.) tells The Root, “We’ll need to make sure we’re relevant and that we do what it takes to stay relevant.”
Porter is not alone in that assessment. “We have to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” adds Groff. “So now, even when D.C. is chugging along, black state, county and local elected officials are more efficient, as well as more impactful and immediate.”
This was an election cycle where Democrats, especially, and other interest groups wanted unconditional black political backing—but didn’t make a full investment for it. So we’re the only group with little—if any—access to GOP leadership, which doesn’t owe us a thing, since it completely runs both the executive and legislative branches of federal government, with sights on the judiciary.
“Either we create new relationships with the Trump administration or forge new relationships with more progressive-leaning allies,” argues Marcus Ferrell, former Black Outreach director for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “Our current relationships did nothing to keep the White House or elevate our issues.”
As a result, black folks will have to play a savvy “inside, outside game” as Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Global Policy Solutions, puts it. That strategy works collaboratively across interest groups while being firm on our own.
But in doing so, Rockeymoore emphasizes finding openings for collaboration on the other side, as well as looking for workable common ground on issues such as criminal-justice reform and economic growth through infrastructure and innovation. “We should identify any legislative policy spaces across partisan aisles where [we] can find solutions,” adds Rockeymoore.
Black media can’t be sleeping at the wheel as we head into 2018 and the midterm elections. Too often it keeps underestimating its own value and punching below its weight. Black newspapers, which Democrats didn’t take seriously this cycle, are still a major and influential source of information for black communities, especially for the older black folks who do vote all the time. Black and urban radio, according to Nielsen ratings, are also heavily relied on by the vast majority of black listeners.
“Black media's importance has just increased exponentially,” says Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of WURD 900-AM, the only black-owned radio station in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the country. “There are few media outlets that have the ability to offer our community a place to speak and be heard, especially now, when it seems our voices are being increasingly marginalized, ignored and silenced.”
This is probably the hardest part of this playbook, yet the most essential. Somehow, the black political and advocacy community will need to channel communitywide PTSD—post-Trump stress disorder—into something that’s creative, coordinated and constructive. It must be an effective blend of grassroots and grass-tops with visible outcomes. And a national refresh on civic education must be the foundation of smarter civic engagement.
Everett Browning, senior vice president of Mentoring for 100 Black Men of Prince George’s County, argues that we can’t be reactive “after the fact.”
“Black political community organizations have existed and continually served throughout American history in spite of disparaging ideologies from all levels and branches of government,” says Browning. “Trump is not the first and, unfortunately, not the last politician to devalue the black community. So we must return to true continuous grassroots involvement outside of the campaign season.”
Not only does that set the tone for a crucial comeback during the midterm elections in 2018, but it sets the stage for a brighter political future where we’re not just scrambling for votes at the eleventh hour and begging people to participate.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.