More than a half-century after brave protesters marched and bled and died to demand the right to vote for black citizens, the ballot box remains a potent weapon for civic and political change — a radical undertaking that can shake up social systems and correct inequities and injustices. If there is any good news in the untimely death of Michael Brown, it’s that the black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, have been reminded of the power of the franchise.
As protests have ebbed and activists have sought solutions to police brutality, they’ve started to register Ferguson’s underrepresented black citizens to vote. That won’t solve every problem, nor will it produce instant results, but it’s certainly one obvious avenue toward social change.
It took tragedy and weeks of unrest — the unarmed Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white police officer on August 9 — to awaken a sense of urgency. Even as the two elections of President Obama proved, once again, the persuasiveness of the ballot, many Americans, especially those in historically oppressed ethnic groups, failed to appreciate its power in state and local affairs.
As the demographics of Ferguson have changed over the last 10 to 20 years, its newer residents have not exercised their political clout. The city was about 80 percent white in 1980, but its white population was down to less than 33 percent by 2010, according to the U.S. Census. You wouldn’t know that from looking at its local leaders.
The city council of six has just one black member; the school board comprises six whites and one Latino. Of the 53 sworn police officers on the force, just three are black. That helps explain a law enforcement agency that shows disrespect and hostility toward its black citizens.
There is a danger, of course, in exaggerating the power of politicians to change the habits formed from centuries of racial injustice or to correct systemic inequities that remain stubbornly entrenched. Obama, indeed, is a case in point. He has attracted a noisy, if tiny, group of black detractors who regularly denounce him for failing to appreciably roll back the racism that has haunted black America for generations.
He has been criticized for failing to adopt a “black agenda” that would employ black Americans and close the gap between white and black earning power. He has been excoriated for occasionally reminding black audiences that hard work and responsible conduct engender success, even as racism remains a cultural force. He has even been castigated for failing to speak out more forcefully against police misconduct in Ferguson.
It’s understandable that there’s a degree of frustration and disappointment that Obama’s election hasn’t done more to mitigate historic forces. After his election in 2008, it seemed that barriers to black success would fall rapidly. Instead, there remains a significant gap in most measures of economic well-being, starting with the unemployment rate. While about 6.6 percent of whites are currently unemployed, about 12.6 percent of blacks are jobless.
That gap hasn’t changed in 50 years, and educational attainment doesn’t alter it appreciably. While the unemployment rate is lower for black college grads than for blacks with high school diplomas, there is still more joblessness among blacks with college degrees than among whites with similar educations.
There’s not much Obama, or any president, can do to change that. Still, elections matter because politicians can encourage progress in any number of ways, large and small. The Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — is just one example of that. While its provisions apply to all Americans, it affects blacks disproportionately because they are less likely to be able to afford policies without it.
If the vote didn’t matter, Republicans would not have worked so hard over the last decade to block the franchise. They’ve pushed through voter ID laws, cut back early voting and purged voter rolls — all in an effort to block a few voters of color, a cohort that tends to vote for Democrats. That’s testimony to the enduring power of the vote, a power that Ferguson’s black citizens should put to good use.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo: Vox Efx via Flickr
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