Elections season always brings around a flurry of activity in the African American community urging people to vote. Whether it’s at churches, beauty or barber shops, community centers or local radio shows, one can’t really escape the 'vote!' message. Today’s current civil rights struggles have ignited me as a young African American woman more than ever to be heard and counted, as it has for my generation, and it’s time we not only vote but step as a generation to run for public office.
This last year in particular has been a harsh reminder of what civil rights fights there are still left to wage. We’ve seen new voting rights laws spring up in many states requiring photo IDs which unsurprisingly greatly affect African Americans who are less likely to have a photo ID. Law enforcement’s racial profiling has come even more in focus with an example of that being NYC’s Stop & Frisk laws discussed during the NYC Mayoral elections in 2013. The filmed death of Eric Garner in New York City due to excessive police force or the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have painfully illustrated that police brutality is not a thing of the past.
Equal treatment under the law is still a question. For example people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have a higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses..
In response many young Blacks have answered the call to take on the civil rights struggles of today as their parents and grandparents before them did. Organizations like Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project, Color of Change, and Hands Up United are part of that answer. Through online and on the ground organizing, these groups organize youth of color to fight against discrimination and to advocate for justice. Other organizations like them are engaging in much needed voter registration taking community frustration and channeling it effectively toward the ballot box like in Ferguson where voter registration has skyrocketed in the wake of Mike Brown’s death. But more black leaders are needed to run for public office and lead political parties to change the policy landscape.
Women’s organizations in the wake of the women’s rights movement in the 1970s looking to advance the rights of women learned early, if you change the player, you change the game. Many PACs supporting the cause of electing more women to office developed. The reasoning was smart. A Center for American Women in Politics study has shown that of a nationwide state legislators survey they conducted, women legislators ranked health care, children, families, education, environment, and the elderly (issues women tend to have more concern over) and women’s rights legislation a top priority over other issues compared to their male legislator counterparts. It stands to reason that the more African Americans are elected to office more specifically those who understand the inequities the black community face, we will see more movement on the issues on which affect our daily lives and perhaps bring along more allies with us in the cause.
To be sure, I know running for office is not the only solution in addressing issues of racial discrimination and injustice. First, not everyone is suited or wants to run for public office. And secondly, much can continue to be done to on the ground as a volunteer activist or working at one of the organizations on the front lines of today’s civil rights struggles. But the results of more African American elected officials across the country cannot be denied. Letitia James, an African American woman who just last year was elected to her role as NYC Public Advocate, has championed a pilot body cam program for police officers in the wake of Eric Garner’s death, which has received the support of NYC Mayor DeBlasio and will be rolled out soon. If Nina Turner, is elected Secretary of State in Ohio this November, an office that oversees the Ohio’s elections process, she will be a champion for voting rights. And though some had hoped for more of a verbal response to Ferguson from President Obama. The response of the Department of Justice in investigating might not have been as swift.
More than 100 Black candidates will be on the ballot in statewide and congressional races in November 2014, which is an all time high from before Reconstruction. It’s a start in the right direction. Many African Americans are answering the call to serve in politics, so come and join them.
Atima Omara-Alwala is President of the Young Democrats of America, the nation’s largest youth partisan organization in the country She is the first African American and the fifth woman to serve as President. She often rights at the intersection of politics, race, women’s rights, and youth.