This November’s election represents an important opportunity for Black men. In urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods throughout the United States, Black men face higher unemployment, incarceration rates and lower graduation rates in comparison to other groups. So increasing our voter turnout in primaries and the general election will force elected officials to consider issues that plague our community.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black men over the age of 20 have an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent. In contrast, White men over the age of 20 have a 3.9 percent unemployment rate. Closing that gap will require increased investment in underserved communities with untapped potential. In addition, lowering incarceration rates that devastated Black families and destroyed once thriving communities is vital. Currently, the U.S. represents five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Far too many Black men who are fathers, sons, cousins and husbands are behind bars. For this reason, registering to vote, canvassing neighborhoods on behalf of a candidate and transporting the elderly on Election Day is more important than ever for Black men.
Although Black men face higher incarceration and unemployment rates in comparison to the average American the 2016 election provides us with an opportunity to influence candidates and policies. Unfortunately, several states restrict former offenders from voting after their release. The practice punishes individuals, particularly Black men, who have completed their sentence and look forward to making a contribution to the local community. Fortunately some states have taken steps to change the policy. For instance, Maryland legislators decided to override a veto by Governor Larry Hogan, which will allow former offenders to vote after their release. The reversal will have a long-term impact on the lives of Black men willing to vote in local, state and federal elections.
The shift in policy is an example of how voters can influence elected officials to change policies but we have to develop a comprehensive plan. Black men should work together to increase voter registration efforts, turnout in state primaries and the November election. The stakes are high. Sitting on the sideline is no longer an option. Kendrick Lamar rapped “we gon’ be alright,” but choosing not to vote will have serious implications for our communities. Creating economic opportunities, increasing access to healthcare, addressing crime and community policing are critical.
According to Rep. Bobby Scott, the ranking member on the Congressional Committee on Education and the Workforce: “Nationally, we are facing serious, consequential challenges, from criminal justice reform, to environmental justice, to closing the achievement and wealth gaps that persist among African Americans and other communities.
“The reality is simple – if you aren't at the table, you are on the menu. Your vote gets you a seat at the table – and our communities are hungry.”
The results from the 2012 election support Congressman Scott’s comment; Blacks voted at a higher rate than Whites for the first time in United States history. We know that Black men can play an important role choosing the next President but we have to keep pace with Black women.
According to the U.S. Census, during the 2012 election Black women outpaced Black men by nine percent. More importantly, Black women voted at a higher rate than any other ethnic or racial group in 2012. Recently, their political strength heavily influenced the South Carolina Democratic primary. Based on exit polls they represented more than 30 percent of voters. Closing the gender-voting gap will increase our ability to shape policy and improve conditions within low and moderate-income neighborhoods.
While it appears that Black men aren’t actively engaged in the political process Black Greek Lettered Organizations (BGLOs) including Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi are challenging the myth. A few years ago they created the 1911 United Super PAC, which raised funds for President Obama. The effort is consistent with the history of BGLOs including Alpha Phi Alpha, Phi Beta Sigma, and Iota Phi Theta, who are committed to registering voters, raising money and awareness within the Black community.
Protecting the voting rights of disenfranchised groups including Black men and women are important. Some states including North Carolina have implemented restrictive voter ID laws that are being challenged in court by the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice. The fight over voter ID highlights the importance of local and state elections.
Congressman Scott suggests, “we know that elections have consequences, but we’ve had some stark reminders over the last few years of what exactly is at stake. Look at communities like Ferguson, Mo., where only 12 percent of Black residents had been turning out to vote in local municipal elections prior to 2015 that yielded a mayor, police chief, prosecutor and other officials who did not reflect the community they are supposed to serve.” Scott continues, “And in Flint, Mich., state officials took away the power of locally elected officials and made disastrous decisions to save money, resulting in thousands of men, women, and children exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water.”
Congressman Scott’s comments highlight the importance of Black men organizing to challenge laws that undermine local control.
This year Black men have the opportunity to challenge misconceptions that they don’t care about the political process. Every day Black men are registering people to vote and organizing to address specific issues including job placement, education, economic development and recidivism rates among recently released offenders. We have a choice (a) support a candidate that represents our interests or (b) allow others to choose a candidate with a limited connection to the Black community. The nation cannot afford to elect someone with similar characteristics to President Frank Underwood, Netflix’s fictional character on House of Cards. Making a difference starts today. Join the movement #BlackMenVote. Remember, “a voteless people is a hopeless people.”