In 1852, Frederick Douglas questioned the meaning of Independence Day to enslaved Black people. Douglass challenged the hypocrisy of a nation founded partly on principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Now, 170 years later, the broader ideals of democracy allegedly present at the nation’s founding remain in tension with the lived reality of many. A pressing question ahead of the 2022 midterm election is what does democracy mean for Black people in America?
In 2020, many pro-democracy voters praised Black voters for “saving democracy.” Two years later, the fate of democracy again lays at the feet of Black voters. But what exactly does that mean to the average Black person?
Democracy Day provides an opportunity to answer these questions and refocus efforts to protect, defend and expand democracy. White Christian nationalist extremism poses a grave threat to democracy. A decades-long strategy ushered in recent rollbacks on rights such as access to abortion, eroding voting rights and prohibiting honest discussions of race and equality in schools. Despite evidence to the contrary, numerous conservative candidates are running on false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
Civil rights leaders recently met with the president to discuss the renewed threats to Black and other impacted communities. Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, challenged the danger of white supremacy and its outsized influence on issues affecting Black and other communities of color.
“We are resolute in the face of white supremacy, extremism, and fear to fight for voting rights, worker’s rights, abortion access, fair courts, and a just economy,” Wiley said. “We applauded the president’s speech calling this nation to defend democracy, which is a fight we, as Black people, have fought from the front lines for generations. And democracy is on the ballot this November.”
Damon Hewitt, executive director and president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, echoed similar sentiments.
“Our Democracy is being threatened by draconian state laws, conspiracy theories, economic insecurity, racism, and hate,” Hewitt said. “We need to pass meaningful, expansive voting rights legislation for Black Americans and other communities of color facing unprecedented threats of voter suppression and election subversion. We must resist the effort to bypass accountability concerns and blindly invest in law enforcement in the same communities that have experienced police brutality, taking us back to the ‘tough on crime’ policies of a generation ago that inevitably lead to the over-incarceration of Black and Brown communities.”
Redefining our participation in the democratic process
Douglass knew that the right to vote was a mechanism for sustaining rights and equality. Ida B. Wells argued a similar point in the 1910 pamphlet “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings.” She described the process of Black voters organizing behind Black candidates with the express purpose of introducing and passing legislation to address lynching.
Wells also wrote at a time when a segment of the country was actively engaging in denying equal rights to Black people. She advocated using voting rights strategically to get behind a candidate and run anti-lynching legislation through them.
Wells co-created value-aligned political homes through which she could take action and challenge the status quo. Similarly, we need to look for strategic opportunities to flex our voting power and build bonds in affiliation with organizations addressing the issues that are important to us.
Breaking cycles of fatigue and frustration with the existing political process requires reframing approaches to voting, electoral participation and related democracy protection activities. It also allows for tailored-made strategies to fit the needs of Black communities. Direct community investments avoid last-minute cookie-cutter approaches that do not reflect community needs or genuine opportunities for advancement.
And part of that investment is leveraging dollars and other material support directly into the hands of Black grassroots leaders. Led by Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC works with Black progressive organizations across the country. Like Wells-Barnett, Shropshire understands the need to be strategic in building collective political power to improve democracy and opportunity for all.
“Democracy is a central tenet of the American Dream for Black voters and our communities,” she said. “As it has been for generations of Black Americans, freedom is on the ballot, along with the Constitutional rights that define our citizenship.”
Staying connected to political processes beyond election day helps build stronger coalitions to address significant issues affecting Black communities. Groups like Detroit Action, Black Leaders Organizing Communities, Mississippi Votes, Community Coalition (Los Angeles), the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and Action St. Louis work to empower and support impacted groups that existing systems have otherwise sidelined.
Fighting for the unfulfilled promise of democracy
The truth is that democracy always hangs in the balance when it comes to the rights and privileges enjoyed by Black and other people of color. Candice Jones, president and CEO of the Public Welfare Foundation, told NewsOne that the unfulfilled promise of American democracy is a constant struggle.
“For Black and brown people in America, democracy means the same thing it has felt like for the last hundreds of years, which is the hope and promise of a thing not yet fully realized by this nation,” Jones said. “It’s not like we had it and then just lost it two years ago.”
Jones said that the legacy of Douglass and the challenge for people today is to tap into the principles allegedly at the core of American democracy. She said the ongoing fight and belief in the principles underlying American democracy fosters hope that fuels action.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary in supporting justice-centered initiatives, the Public Welfare Foundation is focused on supporting justice and liberation by any means. For Jones and the groups supported by the Public Welfare Foundation, protecting and expanding democracy shows up as efforts to fundamentally change the criminal legal system and create pathways for meaningful justice and accountability.
Protecting democracy requires expanding opportunities for all
Building a representative democracy should include people committed to policies and passing legislation that improves the means and conditions of the many, not just a select few. That vision requires a commitment to breaking down existing barriers to equity and justice.
Another part of protecting democracy is having the strength of character to follow through. This becomes important for candidates elected to office by people-powered campaigns demanding bold solutions. Whether keeping a promise to close a city jail or expanding opportunities and support for low-wage workers, these are decisions made while embracing proactive solutions to change policies for the better.
Follow-through also comes from maintaining regular participation in community efforts and sustained engagement beyond casting a ballot every four years.
“Our democracy depends on our full and active participation so that we can protect that freedom for future generations of Americans just as those who came before us sacrificed for us,” Shropshire said.
Written by NewsOne’s editorial team.
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