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Black Americans who don’t vote are heavily criticised – but can you blame them?

The failure of American electoral politics hurts black people more than most.

04 Nov 2020

During the presidential election of 1980 between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, James Baldwin was asked: “Who are you voting for?” He responded with characteristic intellectual poise: “No Black citizen of what is left of Harlem supposes that either Carter or Reagan, or Anderson has any concern for them at all, except for as voters – that is to put it brutally, except as instruments, or dupes, and while one hates to say that the black citizens are right, one certainly cannot say they are wrong.” He highlighted that both presidential candidates represented different types of violence, especially violence towards the black community. He knew that the election did not have a chance of bringing black people the liberation they deserve.

Looking at the 2020 elections in the US, 40 years on, black people are faced with the very same problem. Both of the possible presidential candidates have inflicted significant violence on black communities. There is very little hope to be found in their premiership and plenty of left-wing black people who have made the decision not to vote for either of them at all. Black non-voting has led to harsh criticism in the past, with commentator Brando Simeo Starky calling it “sheer selfishness” back in 2016.

Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill was major in manifesting the school-to-prison pipeline for black men. He pushed president Jimmy Carter to bolster the war on drugs and his influence has led to the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Kamala Harris, his proposed vice president, is a self-characterised “reformer”, yet her record in California as prosecutor shows contradictions. Although Kamala implemented programs that helped people find employment as opposed to incarcerating them, she also pushed for people to remain in prison even after they had been proven innocent. Kamala paved the way for racial sensitivity training programs within the police to address their racial biases, but she also chose not to investigate certain officer-related shootings.

“We have to acknowledge how deeply unfair the choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is for black people”

Even with such a stain on Joe Biden’s campaign, a large majority of black people who chose to vote will still have voted for him in yesterday’s election. Donald Trump has devastated basic human rights, emboldened white supremacists who he told to “stand by” and has been unbelievably irresponsible throughout the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic (which is disproportionately affecting the black American community. People want to see him gone. 

But we have to acknowledge how deeply unfair the choice between the pair is and allow for black people to make legitimate criticisms of the Democratic candidate as much as they critique the Republican one. Online and in-person, people are sometimes shamed with “Well, do you want Donald Trump to be elected again?” The answer is clearly “no”. However, black Americans shouldn’t be chastised for choosing not to engage in electoral politics at all if they legitimately don’t trust in the alternative; a system that has continuously let them down.

In the UK, I feel we face a similar dilemma – having been completely alienated from the Labour party by Keir Starmer by calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “moment” and the 860-page report in which members of the Labour BAME staff network felt there was a hierarchy of racism where antisemitism is taken seriously, but anti-black racism and Islamophobia are not. Our prime minister Boris Johnson is well known for holding racist views – referring to black Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and saying black people have lower IQs. Last month, the Conservative government actually banned “critical race theory” – labelling it as divisive.

Asking black people in the West to choose between the “lesser of two evils” is offensive at best and completely dangerous at worst, especially after the 2020 Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. Black activists and allies spent months on the streets calling for the police to be defunded and even abolished. For the movement to now lose momentum and these protestors to feel caught between two campaigns, both with heavy support of the carceral system, is a betrayal to those who believed in change.

Five months ago it looked like there was a chance to create new systems. Now, black abolitionists are being told by Kerry Washington to “Vote because George Floyd should be turning 47 today”. Let’s be honest – a Democratic government would not necessarily have saved George Floyd. Mike Brown, Clinton Allen and Trayvon Martin were all killed under the Obama administration.

“People need to be sympathetic towards their black counterparts and realise they are stuck between a rock and a hard place”

It’s easy to see why some black people would choose not to vote. For too long black people have been used as political pawns in a game of chess between two old white men. This is illustrated by the fact that it was recently revealed that Trump’s election campaign in 2016 actively sought to disenfranchise black voters, and Biden’s awful remark back in May: “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black!”

Joe Biden giving the family of George Floyd and Eric Garner the floor to speak on the first night of his convention or Kamala Harris shopping for trainers on Complex is not enough to win every black vote when we continue to see no structural change. People need to be sympathetic towards their black counterparts and realise they are stuck between a rock and a hard place; they should not have their legitimate concerns about elements of the Biden campaign dismissed under a barrage of “What’s worse?”

I understand why people want everyone to vote and for the Democratic candidate to be elected – even if it’s only to get Trump out – but it is not lost on me how disappointing it is that the brutal fight for the right to vote fought by our predecessors leaves black Americans with the choice between two candidates they cannot put their full faith in. What is needed for black non-voters is understanding – because regardless of who wins, black Americans still lose.