“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”—Malcolm X
Who is responsible for Donald Trump’s presidential victory? Some argue that Trump’s rise is a byproduct of the decaying American middle class, affected by decades of bipartisan policies.
And then there is ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. Smith is the lead pundit on the ESPN 2 morning talk show “First Take,” and has been on record with finding extreme issues with Black people who made the conscious decision to avoid voting in the 2016 presidential election. Stephen A. Smith continues to use his nationwide reaching platform to do what I call, “Black-blaming,” the Blackcommunity for Donald Trump’s path to the presidency. Smith has placed the failures of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign solely on the backs of Black folks, and what he perceives as a negligent display of voter apathy.
Stephen A. Smith is wrong.
During the 2016 general election, 53.4 percent of voter-eligible Americans made their way to the polls to cast their vote for the presidential nominee of their liking. Donald Trump did best among white voters without a college degree, defeating Hillary Clinton by the margin of 72 percent to 23 percent. Most shockingly to most was the fact that Trump also won among white, non-college educated women 62 to 34 percent, and overall Trump beat Clinton among white women in general 53 percent to 43 percent.
Contrary to Smith’s assentation, Clinton received her largest amount of block support from Black voters, wining 88 percent of the Black vote to just 8 percent for Trump. But as USA.gov reminds us, “The tally of those votes — the popular vote — does not determine the winner. Instead, Presidential elections use the Electoral College. To win the election, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes.”
With that being said, I argue that the results of the decline in Black popular voter support for the Democratic Party’s nominee (Hillary Clinton) was based largely on voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party, the destructive policies pushed on the Black community initiated by the Clintons in the 1990s and the racist undertones present in Hillary Clinton’s initial run for the White House in 2008. It was not simply a case of Black voter apathy, as Stephen A. Smith claims.
Not only is Smith incorrect in his irresponsible oversimplification of the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, his treatment is under-nuanced with regards to adjacent issues that lead to the US entering the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, and Black folks’ role in that process. Smith’s lack of both historical and contemporary contextualization of Black voter turnout has been on display since November 8, and was in full bloom during the closing of ESPN’s December 6 episode of “First Take,” during the show’s new segment “Final Take.”
On December 6, the Cleveland Cavaliers landed in New York City to face the New York Knicks. It was revealed that LeBron James, for the first time in his career, wouldn’t be staying at the team’s hotel during a road trip. The hotel that LeBron decided to avoid happened to be a Donald Trump-branded hotel. Although LeBron did his best to casualize the situation, saying that the move was simply his “personal preference” and that it was juxtaposable to going to a restaurant and deciding “to eat chicken and not steak,” given the moment that we are in with many Americans drawing lines in the sand about Donald Trump, conjoined with LeBron James openly supporting Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, one can understand how the act was seen as one of making a political statement. The choice by LeBron landed on the radar of Stephen A. Smith, and he felt the need to, as “First Take” moderator Molly Qerim informed the show’s viewers, call out and “let loose” on LeBron James for his “personal” choice to not stay in one of Trump’s hotels.
As Stephen A. Smith decided to deliver, what he saw as drop the microphone journalistic truth-bombs of chastisement on LeBron’s decision to not stay at one of Donald Trump’s hotels in New York, he had the unmitigated gall to describe it as an engagement in “pseudo-protest that amounts to nothing.”
I wonder if Stephen A. Smith thought about the potentiality of LeBron’s stance as a form of economic resistance? I’m trying to figure out why Smith took the decision by a global icon with the reach of LeBron James as a fruitless “pseudo protest,” as opposed to arguably one of the most recognizable faces on the planet making sure that his face would not be seen at a Donald Trump-stamped hotel, and what the potential negative economic/publicity trickle-down could have on Trump’s hotels? Furthermore, how could Smith be so dismissive about the Black historical symbolism involved in LeBron’s “pseudo-protest” on, of all days, December 6, when December 5 marked the 61st anniversary of Rosa Parks being arrested for her refusal to yield her seat to a white rider? In many ways, the arrest of Parks served as the catalyst for the economic protest that came tobe known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Maybe Smith was unaware of this historic anniversary.
But Smith’s quasi-condemnation of LeBron James served only as a teaser to his castigation of “the Colin Kaepernicks of the world” who “failed to show up and do their part … particularly in places like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and of course Ohio.”
Smith’s reprobation of Black citizens of voting age concluded with him stating that, “Had Blackfolks showed up to vote this time, as they did for Obama, another Clinton would be in route to the White House. Period.” There is a lot of problematic finger-pointing to unpack here. But let us start with Smith’s Black-blaming of Black folks in the battleground states of North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio for “not doing their part.” In order to tackle this topic, I think that it is imperative that we discuss Black voter suppression in the United States.
Black Voter Suppression in the United States
Black voter suppression is nothing new in the US. In 1871, Congress passed the Second Enforcement Act, better known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. Among its provisions was an effort todecrease white supremacists’ efforts to violently prevent Black people from casting votes in elections. On the surface, one may conclude that the elimination of violent voter intimidation would remedy the problems illegally placed in the path of Black folks exercising their right to vote. But in many ways, the KKK’s physically/psychologically violent voter suppression tactics were just the strong arm of the legal tactics of blocking Black folks from voting by way of the Grandfather Clause. The Grandfather Clause was a statute enacted by several Southern states in the wake of Reconstruction that allowed potential white voters to circumvent legal tactics set in place to disenfranchise potential Black voters from the South.Not only did the Grandfather Clause serve as a way to socially stigmatize newly emancipated Black folks, tethering them to the status of their enslaved past, legally it:
Provided that those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, or their lineal descendants, would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting. Because the formerly enslaved Black folks had been denied suffrage rights until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, those clauses worked effectively to exclude blackpeople from the vote but assured the franchise to many impoverished and illiterate whites.
In 1915, the US Supreme Court declared that the Grandfather Clause was unconstitutional, yet it was not until August 6, 1965, (when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson) that Black people had the legal right to vote. Unfortunately, this did not equate to the end of racialized forms of voter suppression.
Seemingly unbeknownst to Stephen A. Smith, voter suppression became a point of interest in the recent presidential election, particularly in what are oftentimes referred to as the battleground states of North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio — the same states that are the home to the same Black folks that Smith Black-blamed for Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in this year’s race to the White House.
One must assume that Smith was unaware of the fact that the North Carolina Republican Party has been widely criticized this election year for its efforts in suppressing the state’s minority vote. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in July that North Carolina’s voter ID laws “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Or that, “In October, the NAACP filed a lawsuit alleging that local elections boards in five states, including North Carolina, had illegally purged thousands of black voters from registration lists.”
As Smith Black-blamed Black Michiganders for not honoring the legacy of President Obama by showing up for Clinton, I wonder if he knew that a voter suppression lawsuit was filed by the Michigan Democratic Party, that names the Michigan Republican Party, Donald Trump, Trump adviser Roger Stone and Stop the Steal, Inc. as its defendants (Read the full legal filing here).
Maybe it would have diluted the paternalistic political platitudes of Stephen A. Smith to mention that Democratic officials in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada argued that the Trump campaign, again led by notorious longtime adviser Roger Stone conspired, “to threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting.”
Stephen A. Smith is unaware.
The Black Community Has a Right to Be Critical of the Clintons
Again, I am unaware of the motivations of the Stephen A. Smiths of the world that place an almost exclusive burden on Black folks for preventing “another Clinton” from being “in route to the White House,” but, let’s say that that were the case: I am wondering why Smith and those of his ilk feel like “another Clinton” in the White House would lead to personal and political prosperity for Blackfolks in the US? Why are they taking an ahistorical approach to contextualizing the potential ramifications of having another Clinton in the White House, particularly for Black folks? Why does Stephen A. Smith feel like “the Colin Kaepernick’s of the world” were unjustified in their lack of support for Clinton? Maybe Smith has forgotten about the Clinton years for a lot of Blackpeople in the US and its connection to mass incarceration.
Leading into this year’s Election Day, many Black folks rightfully had critiques of both Clinton and Trump, rooted in the candidates’ historical entanglements with race and the criminalization of young Black people, specifically with regards to Clinton calling young Black males “super-predators,” and the legacy of her husband, who, via the results of his crime policies in the 1990s, saw to the expanded flow of military equipment/weapons to local law enforcement, and as Michelle Alexander reminds us, “Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.” Yes, President Bill Clinton, the man that Toni Morrison called America’s “first Black President” incarcerated more Black people than any president in the history of the United States. It was the same Bill Clinton that, in 1994, endorsed and signed into law The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Although Hillary Clinton did not directly do these acts, Michelle Alexander reminds us that Hillary:
…wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
When Bill Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It’s beyond plausible that many Black voters that avoided casting a vote for Hillary could have been drawing from these facts to formulate their political opinion of not only Hillary Clinton, but also the Clintons as a politicized power couple, and the potentiality of the two of them being back in the White House.
Are Black people supposed to have atrocity amnesia, and just forget about the explosion of mass incarceration during the Clinton administration and what it did to Black communities throughout the United States? Did Stephen A. Smith take into consideration that one in 13 Black people of voting age cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-Black Americans? Or that over 7.4 percent of the adult Black population is disenfranchised by way of felony convictions, compared to 1.8 percent of the non-Black American population?
Are the Stephen A. Smiths of the world requesting that Black citizens eligible to vote, who previously voted for President Obama, just forget about how Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign participated in the othering of then-Senator Obama, and did nothing to combat the rumor circulating about him secretly being a Muslim, playing on continued American forms of Islamophobia, rumors of him not being born in the US, and how his former association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright (and his preaching of a Black Liberation Theology) could potentially make Barack Obama seem un-American and racially dangerous in the eyes of many voters?
Maybe Black folks did not forget. Maybe Stephen A. Smith and those who agree with him should cease with Black-blaming Black folks for what they did or did not do during this past election tohave another Clinton in the White House, and start trying to understand the complexities involved in the relationship between Black folks and the Clintons. Period.