“We must understand the politics of our community and we must know what politics is supposed to produce. We must know what role politics play in our lives.”—Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”
In his famous Black nationalist speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X encourages organizing Black political and economic power, with a scathing critique on accountability and return on investment to African Americans for being loyal Democrats. How can Black people place their hopes in a Democratic president offering empty promises, who will ultimately take their votes for granted?
Though delivered in April of 1964, Brother Malcolm could very well be talking to us right now. For in 2016, we are once again in the throes of a popular movement to advance the human rights of Black people in the United States. But today there is a key difference. Unlike the sweeping legislation and reforms to unjust practices in the 1960s, absolutely no legislation has been introduced to address the deeply embedded structural racism that have reversed Black social and economic progress five decades later.
Always prophetic, Malcolm X questions the fight for civil rights legislation to protect the rights of Black citizens. Not convinced that Black people can ever truly be considered “American,” he says, “If birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation.” And though the movement opened greater immigration from African and Caribbean countries, like African-Americans, Black immigrants experience racial discrimination, in both the US immigration and criminal legal systems. Thousands come in search of the “American Dream” and too often find that, as Black people in the US, the experience is a nightmare. As Black Alliance for Just Immigration revealed in the new report, “The State of Black Immigrants,” even for those who have a documented status, over-policing and racial profiling in Black communities means they are not only in incarcerated, but later further detained and deported. Too often discussed as only a Latino issue, immigration policy and enforcement practices are racialized, meaning that Black immigrants face a double threat to their freedom.
Through both runs of his candidacy, President Obama, himself the son of a Black immigrant, rode a wave of popular support, in part for his promise of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” In speeches and press statements, he claimed to feel the pain of Black communities crying out for justice against police violence. Yet, in its last moments, the first Black presidential administration has expanded the prison-industrial complex, detained and deported record numbers of people and paid mostly lip-service to racial justice. This election is critical to Black immigrants whose lives are at the intersection of the struggle, but on the campaign trail, you would never know that Black immigrants exist. Voting and policy advocacy are tools in the fight for freedom and dignity that we must use to affect change.
Though immigrant rights groups across the country are crafting policy initiatives for the next administration, affecting change at the “top” will take a long-term effort to shift the makeup of not just the White House, but Congress. And few are considering Black immigrants or Black voters, which is necessary to create a more complex narrative than taco trucks and bad hombres. However, a popular saying goes that “all politics is local” and, though down ballot contests lack the same garish political theater on issues of state violence — particularly the criminal legal system — it is local elected officials that make the decisions. Black voters will wield exceptional influence in this election, and a strategy that engages Black communities in shifting local representation makes Black voters and Black issues impossible to ignore.
For example, prosecutors are usually an elected position with considerable political power that often go overlooked. In Arizona, the infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a convicted racial profiler, is facing a considerable challenge. However, little attention is being paid to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has refused to prosecute killer cops while aggressively charging a job-seeking Black single mother for leaving her children in a car during a job interview. Sadly, sometimes there is simply not a candidate that inspires support. Until true people’s champions rise through the ranks, creative strategies that focus instead on voter education can help people understand where the names on the ballot stand on the issues. This can lead to real change, as demonstrated this year by the “Bye Anita” campaign that ousted the sitting state’s attorney during the primary without naming or endorsing any of her challengers.
Propositions are also opportunities for Black voters to wield power. Ballot measures that they can’t even vote on often restrict basic rights, such as language access and legal representation for immigrants, laying the groundwork for criminalization by forcing them to the margins of society. The war on drugs has been a war on Black communities. With measures to decriminalize and/or legalize marijuana on the ballot in eight states, this year is an opportunity to dismantle this harmful system. These measures would not only change the legal penalties, but also the impact drug charges have on immigrants’ eligibility for naturalization.
In the fight for Black liberation, we must use many tactics, as the system does not pose only one threat to our existence. The power of the vote, when organized, has been used to expand access and equal rights. Though the top of the ballot looks bleak, we can’t stop there. Black voters must remember to vote down ballot and remember those who do not have the same opportunity to affect change using the right to vote. Maybe good voting can affect change like good organizing, by starting from the bottom up to build power across communities.
This is part of an op-ed series curated by #WeBuiltThis in which Black millennial contributors explore the sordid relationship between state violence and elected politicians. For more information, text OPED to 228466.