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Black People Can’t Vote If We’re Dead

Merely getting US presidential candidates to address the spectacle of Black death will not yield real change.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The Black vote seems to matter more to some than Black life itself.

This election season has inspired presidential candidates to engage in an array of political performances appealing to the mass movement for Black lives, but these performances appear mechanical: None of the candidates are addressing their own roles within the oppressive system that takes Black life.

All of the candidates for president want to utilize the country’s focus on Black America’s plight for their benefit based on what their potential voters want to hear. Candidates have done everything but use Black bodies as stepping stools to engage audiences on the issues of police brutality and racism.

The newfound concern for Black life as a topic of electoral debate contains some historical and contemporary ironies. Since the Black vote is a powerful thing that politicians desire, the candidates have decided to frame the deaths that have fueled Black uprisings against an entire system as something that fits into the box of an “election issue.”

The right to vote has never been fully guaranteed to Black people.

As the elections near, the pressure to use the issue of Black people’s oppression has entangled much of the political arena in a waltz of words and talking points. On the Democratic Party’s side, gaining the support of the Black Lives Matter movement and becoming publicly aligned with the populist sentiment associated with this movement has been a primary goal. Candidates express opposition to police brutality and support for “police reform,” dropping references to police into their speeches as political buzzwords to show their supposed solidarity.

“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” Hillary Clinton said in response to the uprising in Baltimore. She called for body cameras to be issued to police officers and an “end” to mass incarceration.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders recently spoke to the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, saying, “To my mind, it makes eminently more sense to invest in jobs and education, rather than jails and incarceration.” He spoke about the commonalities between Black listeners and him on the issue.

The Democratic candidates were thrown into a frenzy recently when Black Lives Matter activists interrupted proceedings at this year’s Netroots Nation conference. Sanders seemed visibly annoyed by the protesters, going on to say, “I’m not dismissive,” and further stating, “I’ve been involved in the civil rights movement all of my life, and I believe that we have to deal with this issue of institutional racism.” Candidate Martin O’Malley was disconnected enough to let the words “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter,” come out of his mouth, erasing the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of police violence Black Americans face. Hillary had said as much before – announcing, “All lives matter,” as had Sanders – but Clinton was ready to take advantage when the blunder was not at her expense this time. She responded on Facebook saying, “Black Lives Matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that,” before continuing on to her usual talking points about body cameras and reforming the justice system.

The social death of Black America cannot be voted away and will not be uprooted by the Electoral College that chooses the president.

These situations and others like them show how disconnected the presidential candidates are from Black America. They barely seem to comprehend the issues that are being raised, and they cannot muster the messaging necessary to respond correctly. What’s even more disturbing is the mechanical nature of their answers: When the topic of extrajudicial killings of Black people is raised, it is met with a canned reply about “ending” mass incarceration, “reforming” police, increasing jobs or improving education. The answers are framed as if compelling police to wear cameras will erase the forces that drive anti-Black violence, or as if giving Black people more job opportunities will make us immune to deadly racism. The Black vote matters enough to these politicians for them to feel they must mention racism, but their performances thus far are simply not enough to uproot white supremacy.

Ever since Black people arrived in the United States through enslavement, our population has been ostracized by our lack of democratic access. The right to vote has never been fully guaranteed to Black people. From slavery, to poll taxes, to voter ID laws, the US legal system has consistently made clear to Black people that our vulnerability to discrimination at the polls was not a concern.

Plus, the mere existence of the Electoral College is an affront to Black life. That body’s role, historically, in relation to Black life explicitly illustrated the subhuman designation of Black people in this country. The Washington Post reports:

Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that relied on slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states. A direct election for president did not sit well with most delegates from the slave states, which had large populations but far fewer eligible voters. They gravitated toward the electoral college as a compromise because it was based on population. The convention had agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating each state’s allotment of seats in Congress.

This early designation as property within the voting system reveals a stark picture of the place of voting in Black America, and ongoing consistent efforts at disenfranchisement have carried on this violence. In June 2013, the Supreme Court destroyed key parts of the Voting Rights Act through its decision Shelby County v. Holder, which deemed it unconstitutional to require certain states and local governments to obtain federal clearance before making changes to their voting laws or practices. This decision contributed to the disenfranchisement and dehumanization of Black people – a dynamic that is further reinforced when Black people are targeted as “unidentified” voters. The continuous dehumanization that comes with being placed in the caste that is Blackness strips away the importance of a Black vote.

Getting candidates only to address the spectacle of Black death in the United States is not a concrete strategy for real change.

Saidiya Hartman’s use of the term “impaired citizenship,” which references the constituent elements of slavery as well as its afterlife, seems fitting as a descriptor here. The social death of Black America cannot be voted away and will not be uprooted by the Electoral College that chooses the president. The Black vote is symbolic. However, many of us have voted out of respect for our ancestors who, knowing this, died to get us the right to vote. That’s not to say that Black votes are of no significance in all elections: state, local or otherwise. When Black votes are counted in a truly participatory election, our power can manifest itself through common cause and popular agreement. But, the same furiosity with which Black people have fought against voter ID laws, gerrymandering and voting act suppression should be leveled against the Electoral College. Its threat is far too great to ignore. Our voting power should not be easily dismissed: The attacks on it tell you it’s worth something. Still, one cannot ignore the fact that a candidate is ultimately elected to protect the structures Black people ultimately need to dismantle for our liberation.

Getting candidates only to address the spectacle of Black death in the United States is not a concrete strategy for real change. When the candidates’ performances are over, promises will be broken and things won’t really change. We’ve seen this with many presidents before. White supremacy is a system that will never be castigated, subdued or antagonized through any of the methods it has created – especially those, like the electoral system, that have continuously deemed us unfit to participate.

Black people will be unable to make it to the polls if we’re dead. Black people will be unable to make it to the polls if we have been or are currently incarcerated. Whether we speak of physical death or our demise as beings in the social realm, it’s up to Black America to reclaim our humanity. That’s something no candidate can give us.

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