On a recent Sunday, just days after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by officers sworn to serve and protect them, thousands across the country engaged in public demonstrations to raise awareness of police brutality, racial profiling and institutional racism. I participated in one of those demonstrations in Oklahoma City. It was a moving sight. Thousands of people from different socioeconomic statuses and racial categories came together to speak with a unified voice. There were Pan-Africans, socialists, faith leaders, and activists from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations. It was beautiful to see.
After the march, there was a rally. There were speakers who commented upon the need for unity and love. Many affirmed black life. One pushed back against the tendency of black folks to engage in respectability politics. Another discussed the black women killed by police and mentioned the assault on the humanity of those who are black and transgender. I was on a high.
Then came the politicians.
Each one made remarks that gestured toward affirming black life—then each one began to discuss the need to vote. “Are you registered to vote?” one asked. “If you don’t vote, then you don’t get to complain,” declared another. Discussing this experience with others who attended similar demonstrations, I discovered that mine was not a unique experience. Across the country, the need for black people to vote was voiced at demonstrations meant to raise awareness about police brutality. The phrase that came up over and over again was, “Your vote is your voice.”
It’s time to clear this up. We need to put this on the table. The Republican National Convention is this week, and in light of the precarious position many progressives find themselves in because they are weighing a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this needs to be said: Voting is important, but in a democracy, our vote is not our voice.
In 1956, W.E.B. Du Bois was so grieved by his political options that he decided not to vote. He said, “I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe 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.”
For years, black folks have been told that our vote is our voice. The reason such an emphasis is placed on voting is understandable. It was not until 1869 that the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote. This excluded black women, and the amendment was relatively toothless because states then instituted grandfather clauses and literary tests that attempted to delimit black participation in the political process.
It was not until 1965, after years of demonstrations and bloodshed, that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, “permanently barring barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities, prohibiting any election practice that denies the right to vote on account of race, and requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval for changes in their election laws before they can take effect.” Given this history, the deep love of democracy in the black community makes sense. The right to vote was not something we were given—we had to earn it. Yet, with this history in mind, I still reject the notion that my vote is my only voice in a democracy.
Before the majority of black folks were allowed to vote, we influenced democracy in America. Through sit-ins, hunger fasts and other forms of civil disobedience, we were able to influence policy and force those in power to address our concerns. When President Barack Obama recently praised Black Lives Matter for its ability to highlight issues but criticized the movement by saying, “They yell too much” and “Yelling is not what will get the job done,” he was appealing to the notion that in a democracy, one must raise awareness of an issue and then move toward finding solutions within the political system.
I disagree. The point of an activist is to raise awareness. It is to be a gadfly in the Socratic tradition. It is the height of white supremacy for one to tell an oppressed people that they must not only survive injustice but must also fix an evil system that they did not design. That is what those who say, “Your vote is your voice” imply—whether they mean to communicate that or not.
To vote is to participate in a political system—not to change or challenge it. In an election, it is to choose between two candidates who may or may not live up to their campaign promises, and who almost certainly have engaged in some form of ethically questionable behavior to gain access to political power.
My vote is not my voice. My voice is my voice. If I march, if I shout, if I engage in civil disobedience, if I write and, yes, if I choose to vote, I am engaging in the democratic process. This fall I have a choice between a racist nationalist and a warmongering “superpredator”-saying neoliberal. If I choose to vote for one, that is participating in this democracy. If I choose to vote for neither and protest both the Republican and Democratic conventions, I am still an engaged citizen of this democracy.
Black politicians may tell us to vote because they genuinely want to see black and brown faces engaged in this democracy—or perhaps they do it because they know that we will most likely vote for them. If it is the former, I applaud them. If it is the latter, it is nothing more than the self-serving politicking that had Dixiecrats voting against the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 or that Republicans engage in when they redistrict and pass voter-ID laws that delimit poor, black and brown people’s participation in the democratic process.
I agree that voting is important—if not in national elections, then certainly locally. While much attention is paid to who will be the president of the United States, there should be as much attention paid to who will be one’s state congressional representative, school board representative and city council person. Voting matters—but I do not think that voting is our only, or even our loudest, voice in a democracy.
Let us never forget that this political system is not for us. It was designed to marginalize anyone who was not a white land-owning man. If we have gained any political power, it was not while working within this system but by changing the system. Things may be better, but “better” isn’t the goal.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.