Black Americans are not to blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November. However, it is true that many black progressive activists know they made a mistake by not voting for Clinton and/or encouraging others not to, and they regret it, but they won’t admit it. It’s also true that eight months later we still need to talk about what happened.
Throughout the last presidential election season, many black progressive activists, a group I am labeling as left-of-center, unapologetically black, and disillusioned with electoral politics, were telling Americans about the political system, informing our opinions about black electoral politics and what the black community needs from the next president. Black progressive activists encouraged fellow African Americans to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton, and in some cases, to not vote at all. They were wrong.
I’ve labeled this phenomenon: Post-Civil Rights Era Progressive Activist Privilege. It is the false belief, in electoral politics, that black Americans have the luxury of choosing individual beliefs over what’s best for the group as a whole.
My argument to black progressive activists has been simple: we are not in a position as a black community to vote our individual preferences over our group interests. We are definitely not in a position to not vote and then claim to care about our people. If you claim to be about improving black lives over anything else, you can’t possibly argue Trump’s election helps the cause.
However, there is a movement in black communities on the left that espouses a different position. Many black progressive activists argue that the liberation of black people will only and should only come from the ground up in grassroots spaces devoid of participation in electoral politics, particularly in national elections. Alternatively, others may argue that participation in electoral politics should be “strategic” so not to become a pawn of the Democratic Party. I argue it is flawed to discourage black participation in electoral politics.
The argument from black progressive activists is persuasive. They proffer neoliberalism, liberal economic philosophy that allegedly views citizens as consumers, has taken over our political imagination. They argue the Democratic Party has adopted a neoliberal philosophy that undermines the marginalized and the have-nots. They cite the devastating statistics in crime, education, poverty, and so on, that in many cases got worse for blacks under Democratic leadership. They believe in a radical conception of democracy that extends beyond electoral politics. Many no longer believe electoral politics is the platform through which the liberation of black people and their universal freedom will be achieved.
As a result, some intellectuals and activists have sought to encourage blacks not to participate in the political process, or have argued for modified versions of a limited black political participation, masked as strategic engagement.
Each of these arguments is worthy, but not at the expense of achieving material-based, quality-of-life improvements for blacks in the short term.
For example, just days before the election, the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Trump and, surprisingly, many black progressive activists still did not retreat from their ideologically pure ground.
This is why I turn my disdain toward black intellectuals and media pundits who chose to use their platforms to further their individual ideological preferences. When activists in media offer political commentary about topics on which they are not experts, the effort to achieve some progressive opportunities for black communities can be endangered.
The black progressive argument that Clinton would not have represented blacks any better than Trump often came from sources via social media and black activist networks (some of which I also belong to) that simply printed falsehoods or, at best, incomplete information. Consequently, many black American followers allowed selective media sources (and their pundits and contributors) to influence their politics. They allowed Facebook friends and Twitter and Instagram followers to influence them politically even though their life circumstances varied. Perhaps, Russian interference is partially to blame. Even still, Black people should be unconditional in their organizing against the KKK and any candidate they support.
Now, as nearly every day brings another Trump administration goal or action that threatens black lives, many continue to cling to their anti-Clinton posturing even as data is produced that proves the negative impact of their decision not to vote for the Democratic nominee or at all.
The false “choice” to not engage the system is a decision to not engage in the institutions that, like it or not, govern our lives as Americans. When blacks choose to disengage in electoral politics, they risk irrelevancy and even poorer representation from our elected officials. Engagement by blacks, rather, can impact the outcome of elections and produces better results for black communities.
The entire argument of black progressive activists rested on the assumption of a Clinton victory. The intellectuals assumed the tonality of their anti-Clinton, anti-two-party system, anti-capitalist op-eds and on-air rhetoric would not discourage blacks from voting for Clinton, even in battleground states; they were wrong. Their views, coupled with shared views from celebrities like Colin Kaepernick, Rosario Dawson, and Azealia Banks, I argue, played a huge role in the significantly decreased black male turnout vote in urban cities. With at least a seven percent reduction in black votes, (almost two million black votes cast for Obama in 2012 did not turn out for Clinton), that was arguably the nail in Clinton’s electoral coffin. While a wave of white working-class voters significantly contributed to Trump’s win, the influence of black progressive activists on traditionally Democratic black voters cannot be ignored.
“Politics” includes electoral politics, grassroots politics, and community politics. I believe it will take all three working in concert to eliminate the centuries-long subjugation of blacks by our institutions of government. Most of the systemic and structural issues facing black communities in the United States will require electoral politics to solve, and black Americans can’t afford to be persuaded not to vote.
This past presidential election was the first general election since 1968 to be held without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. After the record-breaking turnout among black communities during both of Obama’s presidential elections, a decline in black voter turnout for a non-Obama ballot was to be expected. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, coupled with GOP successful efforts to suppress minority voters, made it more difficult for blacks to vote in key electoral battleground states. Yet, black activists had three years to prepare for that expected decline. Black intellectual activists chose to spend much of that time fighting each other.
One such fight during the campaign season centered on whether or not Clinton was as bad as Trump. I reject the framing that Clinton was equally bad for black Americans.
She wasn’t endorsed by the KKK!
That’s one clear difference and it really was enough for me. It’s shocking to me, still, that the KKK endorsement was not enough for every other person of color in America.
Another difference? Clinton would not have appointed Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, effectively eliminating any chance of substantive black progress in the legal arena for generations. Coupled with Kennedy’s expected retirement, because Trump won in November, the Supreme Court and hundreds of other judicial lifetime positions could shift far-right.
By not listening to black political experts, many in the black American community failed to understand the difference between black cultural organizing and black political progress. The result? Many black progressive activists inadvertently set black opportunity back several generations.
These black intellectual progressives thought they could lean on the strategic political behavior of black voters at the polls without having done the educating work necessary to ensure that was possible. Too many black progressives thought we could afford abstract articulations of the holistic needs of the black community. The irony of some black people choosing normative ideals over material advancement is astounding. Those black progressive activists were complicit in the election of a Ku Klux Klan ― endorsed presidential candidate - I’m sorry (not sorry), but you lose your black card.
When black Americans allow selective news viewership to dictate how their personal politics impacts their black community membership, we have allowed our activisms to be limited to the news cycle.
For the failure of helping to elect Trump, black progressive activists must re-assess the value of prioritizing ideals if their influence indirectly has a negative impact on black opportunity in electoral politics. Until that moment, for future elections, black Americans must stay committed to electoral politics as the black progressive position will gain even greater momentum in that arena.
By committing to reading thoroughly and checking sources, blacks can be their own political experts. By learning the system, the issues, and the candidates, the African American community can encourage more black left-of-center people to run for office and donate more to candidates that represent the group interests of African Americans. Some in the black American community tried a shortcut last November and erred. We can never make that mistake again.