On Wednesday the National Urban League released its yearly analysis of the socioeconomic status of African Americans, The State of Black America report. And although the Occupy Wall Street movement, in addition to the White House, has emphasized the widening wealth gap and shrinking middle class as being the make-or-break issues for the nation this year, the civil rights organization has a different assessment.
"More than the economy, more than jobs, more than an excellent education for all children, the single issue that arguably stands to have the greatest impact on the future of Black America in 2012 is the vote," writes National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial in the report, entitled "Occupy the Vote to Education, Employ and Empower." He zeroes in on the several dozen state laws introduced in the last year requiring government-issued photo ID in order to vote, shortening early voting periods and voting hours and severely restricting voter-registration drives, among other measures — all of which have disparate impacts on African Americans' access to the ballot.
The report — which includes chapters penned by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), advertising executive Steve Stoute and recording artist John Legend — also discusses challenges and solutions around education and employment. As its writers put forward, blacks at the voting booth have a direct impact on those issues. At 7 p.m. ET, the Urban League is holding a town hall at Howard University to discuss all of this, streamed live at iamempowered.com.
Morial spoke with The Root about "taking the long view" around the power of the ballot and why he thinks some civil rights activists have a misguided perspective on voting laws.
The Root: The matter of voting laws is often viewed as a mere inconvenience rather than a matter of large-scale voter suppression. Why do you consider it such an important issue?
Marc Morial: It's curious timing for, all of a sudden, an avalanche of new voting laws. In 34 states, legislatures have introduced laws that will require voter IDs for the first time. For the first time. This is a wide-ranging strategy to depress the votes of black people, young people and senior citizens in this upcoming election cycle. We have to remember that voting is a constitutional right and a fundamental value of the American system, and we ought to be promoting democracy — not making it more difficult for people to vote.
TR: The report argues that increased civic engagement will "allow African Americans to attain educational and employment success." Can you explain more on this idea?
MM: The bottom line is that the nation is undergoing a very important debate about the future of education in schools and what our jobs policy is going to be. In effect, it's a debate on how we're going to build the nation after a recession. If black people do not participate in the electoral process and do not influence the election of people, then we will have no one at the table when these discussions take place — in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies, in state capitals, in city halls.
It's important for people to keep the context in mind. We're at a pivot point. We've had a recession, and now there's clamoring to cut the budget. Those who will see things cut that impact them the most are those whose voices are not at the table.
TR: With the already weak education and employment situation, how can you convince people that change is possible through voting when it's not quite that simple?
MM: I think people have to take the long view. The question to ask: Is the economy better off today than it was during Barack Obama's first six months in office? The president — this president, any president — is not a magician. Nor has any president been able to rule by executive fiat. Going back to the budget-cuts example, that all came in an environment in which the Tea Party took over the House of Representatives. This agenda, and the state voting laws, emerged after the 2010 elections.
TR: From the civil rights community, there have been different approaches around how to deal with voting laws. One approach is to focus solely on overturning them, under the argument that to help people deal with the laws is to accommodate and accept them. Where does the National Urban League stand on that?
MM: I don't agree with that. We have to push hard to overturn the laws while at the same time helping people to the extent that we can, to prepare them. The National Urban League is launching, as a part of our State of Black America report, the Occupy the Vote Election Center. It's a Web-based portal that provides information on where to register, how to make voter complaints, tool kits for how to run a voter-engagement campaign, information about voter-suppression laws and a list of requirements state by state. I don't think you can say, "Well, we can't accommodate these laws," and then the election goes by and your representatives get defeated. That's a theoretical, academic point of view.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.