Many of you may have seen a similar post on my Facebook page last Friday, this is an updated and revised post with several additions, please enjoy and engage in conversation…
Recently, I had the honor of speaking at the College of Staten Island to students and faculty that take part in the Black Male Initiative, a wonderful component of CUNY that provides support and assistance to Black and Latino CUNY students, in addition to students of other under-represented backgrounds. The conference was on the topic of voting in the 2012 elections, voter’s rights and the future for urban America.
With recent legislation and attempts to enact voter ID laws in more than half of all the states in the country, voter suppression is playing a big role in the upcoming elections. These are strategies that have been employed since African Americans first gained enfranchisement with the 15th amendment following the Civil War. It is the latest in a long line of attempts to keep African Americans and other people of color from going to the polls and exerting their constitutional rights.
Similar laws were in place during the Jim Crow era in the 1890’s through the Civil Rights Era, when the last of the harsh voter suppression laws (voter literacy tests and other blatantly racist restrictions on voting) was repealed. Yet we are witnessing a return to these discriminatory policies as 37 states have attempted to enact, or have succeeded in implementing, voter ID laws. There have only been 10 reported cases of in-person voter fraud in the past decade. This represents less than 0.000001% of all registered voters in the United States and is evidence that this law has been enacted, not to fix a problem in the country, but to disenfranchise many voters who do not have a photo ID and will be dissuaded from voting. The majority of these voters were found to be young people and African Americans, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School. This report has found that voter ID laws “could make it significantly harder for over 5 million people to vote,” ultimately dissuading many of them from voting. This shows the efforts to which states, largely with Republican controlled Governorships and Legislatures, are going to suppress voter turnout.
For these reasons, the Black Males Initiative’s conference was of the utmost importance. We must ensure these efforts do not go unchallenged. It is the responsibility of all citizens in this country to levy their vote so that their interests are met by their respective elected officials. This is not limited to the presidential elections; often times it is local politicians that have the greatest impact in the daily lives of citizens; who provide the immediate services available in neighborhoods across the country. These elected officials will also be on the ballot this November 6th and voters should ensure that they are most representative of their districts so that the communities’ most immediate needs are met.
I also had the pleasure of listening to my colleague Council Member Deborah Rose, Chair of the Council Committee on Civil Rights, speak on this issue. She explained that where she is today, the first African American elected to the city council from the borough of Staten Island, would not be possible without the empowerment, organization and vote of the community she represents, one that was not as politically active in the past. Now that they have empowered themselves, they can be proud to have a council member who represents their interests and supports their needs. As a local elected official, I have always stated that I want my constituency to hold me accountable for the work that I do in my community. It should be the same in all levels of government; in all places across the country; and the only way to achieve this is through the ballot box.
Additionally, voting is just half of the issue in choosing the best leadership; it is also our responsibility as citizens to be informed about who we are voting for. This means some research is necessary, as campaigns often spread a great deal of misinformation about candidates and their opponents. Personal political profiles, voting records, fact checking and budgetary distribution are all important ways to determine exactly who candidates are and what they will likely do in office. These resources cut through campaign rhetoric and provide a more complete and verifiable record about each candidate. When looking at these sources, think about the needs in your respective communities and find whether your candidate’s voting records and political platforms are aligned with these needs and whether their vision is one that will ultimately benefit you and those around you. Remind yourself that there are millions of people in this country struggling to become citizens and that you should not take for granted your right to vote, it is part of our responsibility as members of this country.
In addition to this topic, other discussions that arose from the BMI conference opening speakers dealt with education, self-awareness and a re-definition of manhood and leadership, furthered most strongly by keynote speaker, Mr. Kevin Powell. His speech was rousing and inspiring, referring to his own personal experiences and how they have shaped his views on these issues. A point he made that I believe is crucial is that leadership is defined by how you treat and interact with the people that you lead; you can only be a true leader if you respect and incorporate members of your community into everything that you do. Continuing his point, leadership that does not fulfill this criterion is driven by self-interest or the interests of others, rather than those of the community. Mr. Powell stressed to the large contingent of Black and Latino students who participate in the BMI program that these qualities will be imperative as they move forward after graduation and strive to better their communities.
The qualities outlined by Mr. Powell are those that we must all look for in our local elected officials and are ones that I look to improve upon every day. Today’s political landscape is unfortunately dominated by moneyed interests, more reflective of the notion, one dollar, one vote than one person, one vote. However, this discouraging circumstance should not deter us from the ballot box as this would be a submission to the forces that dominate our society. You have a voice and it was one granted to you through the brutal struggle of countless generations in this country’s history. To waive this right would be to forsake the leaders of our past and defer the choice of leadership to those who do not necessarily best represent the interests of the electorate.
Please remember that the last day to register to vote in the general election is this Friday, October 12th, and that the general election is on Tuesday, November 6th. Play your part in choosing your leaders or you will be fulfilling the interests of those who would see you stay home this November.