Dispatch To Black Millennials: You Are Casting A Vote this Election Even If You Don't


I teach millennials for a living, though I encounter relatively few black ones because at my institution and many others they are casualties of a preference for tokenism over critical mass. Black millennials are also casualties of a higher unemployment rate than their white counterparts; of greater police harassment; and of a lower life expectancy, to name just a few of their travails. To this dispiriting list, one might also add that, in the current election, they risk falling casualty to ahistoricism.

"He's a racist, and she is a liar, so really what's the difference in choosing both or choosing neither?" posited one young, black potential non-voter in the crucial swing state of Ohio, referring to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Another black millennial observed of Clinton, "She was part of the whole problem that started sending blacks to jail."

My students teach me a great deal, both through what they get right and what they get wrong, so I would never dismiss assessments like the foregoing. In fact, for purposes of argument, I'm willing to accept their validity, as well as the validity of the argument that the political establishment has failed young blacks and that the discourse in this election and beyond can no longer be about merely "settling on a candidate who is better than the alternative."

All these things may well be true, but so, too, is the observation passed down from generations of historians that "one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen." Change does not happen by making the decision not to vote. To be sure, social progress occurs outside of the voting booth, but failing to vote has never, ever itself been a vehicle for such social progress.

Quite the opposite. In 1902, Jackson W. Giles, a black man residing in Montgomery County, Alabama, attempted to register to vote but was refused on grounds of his race. Giles brought suit on behalf of himself and more than 5000 other blacks residing in his county. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, had been enacted 30 years prior to Giles's attempt to register. The Supreme Court denied Giles's request for relief, and it would not be until 95 years after ratification of the 15th Amendment, through persistent litigation, and ultimately by action of Congress, that African Americans writ large would have unimpeded access to the ballot.

This history is not an attempt at guilt tripping anyone; rather it offers insights with which to evaluate the utility of sitting out this or any other election. First, the fact that African Americans waged a sustained campaign over the course of more than 100 years to gain access to the ballot--and that whites attempted over the same period to deny blacks the ballot--suggests that devaluing the efficacy of participating in elections may be a mistake. It could be that our ancestors simply misperceived the importance of voting, but given that many risked life and limb to gain this right, their view of the value of the vote cannot be lightly dismissed.

Second, the movement for the black franchise took place during decades when candidates of all political stripes were far less responsive to black concerns--indeed, they were mostly not responsive at all--than, say, a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump. Nevertheless, there was no credible current of thought among African-American leaders that not seeking or not exercising the right to vote was a plausible strategy for change. Presidential elections are a choice between candidates, but more than that, they are often skirmishes in a larger struggle for progress. Conservatives learned this long ago, and their patience paid off with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the accompanying conversion of the U.S. Supreme Court into what until very recently was a bulwark against civil rights. The long view, not a transient assessment of two candidates, is probably the better way to look at this election.

Third, when universal black suffrage came to fruition with the aid of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black voters exercised the franchise in an America that was overwhelmingly white and would remain so for the foreseeable future. Since the 1980s, however, the white share of the electorate has decreased by 2 percentage points every presidential election. In other words, the efficacy of the votes of people of color is increasing with time because there are more like-minded voters with whom to create a winning coalition. Because the Electoral College renders presidential elections a state-by-state battle, the efficacy of young blacks voting is even greater in states with already heavy concentrations of blacks, like Florida and Georgia. Why stay at home now when demographics have just begun to favor you?

Fourth, any assessment of the utility of voting for African Americans, both young and old, must take account of the fact that whites as a group have had the franchise for more than a century longer than blacks. Like accumulated wealth, accumulating political capital is a multigenerational process. It is doubtful that not voting this election will speed that process.

In recently striking down a key protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed that "history did not end in 1965." Neither did voting discrimination by whites. Driven by access to demographic data that can be churned using technology, Republicans have sought to "rig" the current election by passing stringent voter ID laws that courts have found to intentionally discriminate against black voters; attempting to shorten early voting periods--also found by a federal court to be intentional discrimination against black voters; eliminating "straight ticket" voting, a move struck by a court because of its disparate impact on blacks; and imposing a proof of citizenship requirement in order to register to vote.

Indeed, the Republican Party's strategy for winning this year's presidential contest depends as much on a depressed black voter turnout as it does on an uptick in the turnout of white working-class voters. In other words, not voting is voting.

Any strategy of black political protest that actually fulfills the desires of a political party that just last month was found to have intentionally tried to suppress the black vote is not a strategy at all. It is, instead, defeatism that would be unrecognizable to the likes of Jackson Giles.