The trend of political apathy in the Black community is one I find quite alarming. And not just in the context of not voting but in the much larger political context, as in becoming completely insulated from the world of politics itself. While I certainly acknowledge that political apathy is the byproduct of an unfortunate history, I also believe it is time to abandon the passive present and embrace the activist future. Black folks were quite political throughout the twentieth century. The Civil Rights Movement was not merely an effort to give us equal rights. It was also a political movement that empowered large segments of the Black community. We actually paid attention to the issues that affected us and made an effort to change an implacable status quo. But we seem to have lost that initiative. Perhaps it is because we have nothing left to fight for, no Jim Crow laws to overturn, no going to the back of the bus, no more lynchings. Yet there is plenty to fight for. Better schools, safer neighborhoods, better jobs, and all around, better lives.
Unfortunately a good portion of the Black community is inundated with useless imagery and noise. Some of us see ourselves as multi-million dollar athletes, as others see themselves as renowned rap artists, while even smaller segments sadly aspire to be drug kingpins. We can readily laugh and jeer at our own displays of buffoonery and misogyny on television but can’t compose a complete sentence when it comes to discussing political issues that really matter to us. Escapism is not necessarily a bad thing. But when escapism becomes a modus operandi for inaction, an intervention is definitely in order.
We must also realize that inaction is also symptomatic of apathy. It is understandable why Black folks have grown jaded with the political system. They watch their communities deteriorate and become riddled with crime. They seethe with anger as they become increasingly marginalized by the legal system and groan with sadness as they lose their homes. These are legitimate grievances that could well drive anyone from the political conversation. But such were the odds placed against Black America in the past. Furthermore, the largest minority group in the United States, Latinos also suffer with many of the same problems if not more. Yet they manage to lobby for causes ranging from the DREAM Act to fights against unlawful discrimination. So what is missing in today’s black community that was present in the spirits of our pioneers and currently present in the Latino community?
One answer to this question concerns the outcome of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement had achieved so much but seemed to run out of steam once equality became the norm. Was the Civil Rights Movement limited to only fighting for racial equality in all segments of society or was it solely aimed at improving our academic, financial, and professional lives? Racial equality did translate into upward social mobility for a significant number of Black folks. So in a way, the Civil Rights Movement naturally led to better social conditions. Many of us became comfortable with our current state of affairs as racism faded into the background. But racism still persists, albeit, in subtler forms. Maybe we were simply satisfied with minimizing outward racism as opposed to the more nuanced institutionalized racism that dominates our society.
So in that sense, it would seem that the Black community became comfortable with its newfound position in the social stratum. Now, comfortable doesn’t necessarily translate into complacency, though I would beg to differ. Our shared collective history as Black folks posits that a strong work ethic is paramount to our survival. Black folks have been consistently taught to work harder than their White counterparts, to be smarter, wittier, and more athletic. This is not done out of spite but rather to ensure that we do not fall behind. We recognize that we as Black folks are historically disadvantaged when it comes to social mobility. As such, we, ideally, push ourselves to perform at a level above and beyond those around us. Yet, somehow we still remain overrepresented in service-based occupations and other low-wage jobs. Very few of us attend college (Black men especially), our rate of incarceration is much higher compared to other ethnic groups, and a significant number of Americans seem to think we excel only the realms of sports and entertainment.
The Civil Rights Movement did give us the right to vote and become active, participating members of our society. But it seems like we simply stopped progressing because we felt eliminating blatant, obvious racism was the panacea to all our social problems. We stopped one demon only to have many others take its place. Yes, I will admit that a number of structural issues can be blamed on this country’s racist and prejudiced past. But I will not absolve us of responsibility. Many of our social ills are problems created by us without any outside cultural influence. No one is asking us to sell drugs to one another, to kill each other over the most insignificant things, to abandon our children, to embrace irresponsible promiscuity, to commit crimes that only leave us behind bars, or to perpetuate stereotypes of Black folks being loud, ignorant, combative, and violent. No one is asking us to separate ourselves according to light skin and dark skin, good hair and nappy hair, suburban and urban, civil and ghetto, and any other useless comparisons that only serve to drive a wedge between us.
Our comfort becomes complacency when we let these problems persist all the while conveniently blaming it on racism or some perceived sense of discrimination. I’m not saying that such things are not a problem to us. But if you’re going to cite such things as reasons for why you can’t succeed at least take an inventory of yourself first before drawing such conclusions. A candid recognition of our problems must be the first step in continuing the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. We must then express an interest in our collective fate by showing up to vote when it matters most. The recent turnout of Black voters in this past election is certainly a sign of hope that we as a people are beginning to recognize the power of our collective political strength. This is not to say that voting will immediately solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, police discrimination, or limited academic opportunities. But it at least represents a vehicle that, if used to maximum effect, could yield powerful results. Of course our votes won’t matter if a few of us vote every four years. But if the entirety of voting eligible Black folks begins to pay attention to our local political issues or even national ones, then I can guarantee that we will be able to affect change relatively quickly.
Because at the end of the day, it is an insult to remain politically complacent when hundreds if not thousands of men and women died, Black and White, died to give us the right to vote. Sacrifice is a powerful thing and the best way we can be gracious for those sacrifices is to simply pay a little more attention to those issues that affect us. This is not a plea for folks to become a political junkie like myself. But read a newspaper article every once in a while, watch a brief segment on the news for a few minutes, or call your congressman if you have a concern in your community. It really doesn’t take much effort to be politically astute. If all of us made an effort to educate ourselves imagine where we could be. Don’t just wake up when a Mitt Romney comes along. Be up and at ‘em before a problem develops because the best way to solve a problem is to make sure it never becomes a problem in the first place. And the most effective means is to make ourselves knowledgeable about how a particular policy or candidate might negatively or positively affect you. This started to happen in this past election but I want to more of it on a more frequent basis. For when Black folks of all social backgrounds show even the slightest sense of urgency or appreciation for how powerful their collective political voice is, we are definitely on the right track.