I'm not going to sugarcoat things: For many of us, Halloween came four days late this year. The agenda of a Republican-controlled Congress could spell disaster for black people. After all, this is a party that, rather than try to appeal to black voters, instead worked at the state level to disenfranchise them with voter ID laws and other measures. Heck, even Mitt Romney acknowledged last year that his presidential campaign needed to do more to attract minority voters.
And no matter where you stand on the issues, you must concede that there will be extreme gridlock for the next two years: Congress will block President Obama's appointments, while in turn the president will use up a lot of ink with a steady stream of vetoes when Congress passes bills to undermine his agenda. Undoubtedly the centerpiece of this grandstanding will be a toothless repealing of the Affordable Care Act without a veto-proof majority.
The expected leadership of the new Senate majority have agendas that, if they came to pass, would prove dangerous to black folks. Lamar Alexander, likely to become the next chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, was once George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Education. During his tenure, he advocated for severely curtailing race-based scholarships and restrict evaluation of faculty and student diversity when accrediting institutions of higher education. Now he has ambitions of scaling back President Obama's policies of evaluating cost-effectiveness of colleges and the "gainful employment" rule for evaluating career colleges, preferring that our young people go into more debt, or throwing away money on worthless classes from a career college, which when legitimate can serve a valuable purpose for minorities' career prospects.
The consequences to black folks could be outright deadly. Because of air pollution, Harlem has the nation's highest rate of asthma, in addition to being the neighborhood where I live with my wife and young son. Meanwhile, Senator James Inhofe, the presumptive next chair of the the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pledged to block implementation of the Clean Air Act. So in the name of stopping alleged job-killing legislation, we would be left with the status quo. And if my son develops asthma, I could have Senator Inhofe to thank.
On another front regarding matters of life and death, high-ranking Republican Senator David Vitter objects to President Obama's plans to combat Ebola in part because, and I'm not making this up, it "focuses on Africa." In yet another example, North Carolina Senator-elect Thom Tillis boasted in his campaign materials that as a state legislator he pushed to end the state's moratorium on the death penalty. Around this time, DNA evidence exonerated death row inmate Henry Lee McCollum after serving 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Tillis did in fact acknowledge the miscarriage of justice, then gave the absurd remark that "At least the process worked, it just took too long." Tillis has also contrasted minority voters with "traditional" ones.
Yes, there were some silver linings in the vast expanse of Election Day clouds. There were some historic firsts for African-Americans: Mia Love became the first black female Republican elected to Congress, Tim Scott became the first elected black senator from South Carolina, and Will Hurd became the first black Republican elected to Congress in Texas. Granted, I'm not too keen on their ideological stances, but it is nice for black folks to break barriers.
There were some newly elected people of color who are Democrats, who will likely be strong advocates for issues most pressing to African-Americans. This includes Alma Adams, elected to Congress in North Carolina, whose election means for the first time in history there will be 100 women as voting members of Congress. Another notable first is Bonnie Watson Coleman, who became the first black woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. And Cory Booker has secured his first full senate term.
New York State-level elections also have some reasons to feel encouraged. Although Republicans retook the state senate, at least there will no longer be 12 vacancies in the state legislature, as has been the case for most of 2014. That means about 1.8 million New Yorkers, including about 800,000 people of color, will once again have full representation. There will also be new members of the legislature, such as Leroy Comrie, Charles Barron, and Rodneyse Bichotte, who have all demonstrated passion and concern for the needs of people of color.
And some ballot measures passed were promising, which stand to strike a blow to the prison-industrial complex that targets African-Americans. Referendums to legalize marijuana passed in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. This will end the arrests for possession of trifling amounts marijuana that have pushed so many young men of color further down the path of the cradle to prison pipeline. (Of course, Oregon and Alaska don't have too many people of color in the first place.) Another major victory is the measure passed in California to end mass incarceration for nonviolent low-level crimes like drug possession, and instead use restorative justice to help turn people around as opposed to ruining black folks' lives to enrich private prison contractors.
Ultimately, we cannot simply lament the 2014 results and cower in fear. Instead, the goal for African-Americans and everyone else should be to look ahead to 2016. With the likelihood of partisan gridlock holding up most things, we can take some comfort in knowing that there will probably not be too much many destructive right wing "reforms" implemented, even if the flip side is the low probability of positive change.
The fact of the matter is that, even if the Democrats lost big time this year, people stand with the Democratic Party when it comes to most issues. About 70 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage; over half support same-sex marriage; a majority believe undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship; a majority say abortions should be available; generally a majority supports action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even if it hypothetically hurts economic growth; in general a majority of Americans support labor unions; almost always a majority say lower and middle income individuals pay too much in taxes whereas the wealthy and corporations pay too little; and 62 percent of Americans favor equal pay for women.
The chances are slim to none that these will be the priorities for the next two years. It is true we can hold out hope that members of Congress could actually change their minds if they get a clear signal from the people as to what we actually want. However, that is quite a long shot.
Instead, the priority of the next two years will have to be preparing for 2016. This includes organizing the underprivileged and people of color who have been shut out of the process. There must be coalition-building, voter registration, peaceful demonstrations, and every means of communication to let people in power know what we actually want. We will have to campaign at the state level to overturn laws meant to disenfranchise people of color and lower income folks, as well as push laws to enfranchise more people such as those formerly incarcerated. And if state governments turn a deaf ear, groups like the NAACP will have to step in to litigate.
Once members of both parties hear the voice of the people, and know that those folks will turn out on Election Day 2016, they will be forced to take stances held by the majority of Americans or face the consequences. Republicans will not have the wave of anti-Obama sentiment to ride, and Democrats cannot bank on the vote of black folks when there is unlikely to be someone who looks like them at the top of the ballot. But when all is said and done, our activism will probably benefit the Democratic Party, because I highly suspect the GOP will dig its heels and stick to its platform of helping big business and the wealthy in the hope that their base's big time campaign spending will keep them in office.
Another imperative for these next two years will be to foster new leadership in Congressman Charles Rangel's district. The Congressman, who was elected to his final term this year, has been one of the greatest advocates for people of color in Congress during his 40 plus years in office, and has also been a powerhouse in serving the needs of Upper Manhattan. His retirement will create a massive void in black leadership both nationally and in his district, and we must prepare his potential successors, regardless of ethnicity, to have the leadership skills needed to follow in his footsteps.
There's no doubt these next two years will be unpleasant, especially to black folks. Really, the most we can do is grin and bear it when it comes to Congress and hope they don't do too much damage. And in the meantime, the goal will have to be to mobilize and organize the people, so that we are ready for 2016. As the old saying goes, "The people united will never be defeated." The time to unite is now, and our representatives will have to listen or be out of a job.