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VOTING WHILE BLACK: Color of Change Takes Communities from Presence to Power

By Monica Suriyage

I grew up thinking voting was something you did, simple and deserving of praise, like going to an annual dentist appointment knowing you flossed all year. The first time I was able to vote was for Barack Obama’s second term. I felt the victory before my ink stamp hit the little circle next to his name. I voted in North Philly, known for its poverty, run-down homes, and people riding horses and dirt bikes in the street. I was surrounded by black elders who made the room feel like a block party, joyful and unified. 

A man in all grey commented on the scene with a smile:“Lil sis, this my first time here like this.” 

I was surprised. How had a man so many decades older than me not voted until this election?

I’d been oblivious to how impoverished black people and politics mix. I grew up mostly around white people, and my parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka. So I couldn’t pinpoint why other black voters were so over-the-top about it. Obviously, keeping our first black president in office was a priority, but wasn’t voting something they did every four years? Apparently not. More recently, the 2018 midterm elections showed an outpouring of black voter support for candidates like Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum. It was refreshing to see, but that’s because it felt unusual.

Some credit for this surge surely goes to Color of Change. It might sound like a feel-good Bob Marley song, but it’s actually an organization championing black people and our place in politics. They’re getting Confederate flags removed one day and mobilizing black voters the next. 

“Color of Change was started in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” explained Arisha Hatch, Managing Director of Campaigns. “Our founders were like many people watching the news: watching black people stranded on rooftops, watching the media calling us looters for trying to get basic survival supplies. What they [noticed] was that public officials, elected officials, and the media were not afraid of disappointing black people.”

This immense disconnect in the treatment and media portrayal of blacks did not start overnight. Traditionally, politics has not included black people, and has actively worked to keep our voices unheard, for the sake of profit and status quo. Voter suppression against people of color is an unfortunate staple of American history dating back to the Jim Crow era. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 stated that all eligible people should have the opportunity to vote, but it was largely undone in 2013 when the Supreme Court removed a process called “preclearance” from the act. Preclearance, where jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities, had been a critical tool for combating racial discrimination.

From cuts to early voting, to disenfranchising formerly incarcerated voters, to purging half a million registered voters in Georgia, voter suppression is now a hot-button issue due to its prominence in the 2018 midterm elections. These restrictions are largely imposed by Republicans. 

“The right wing understands that our community really values showing up and voting,” Arisha stated. “They’re doing tons of things to make [that] more difficult… This impacts our ability to have a voice in decisions that are made [both] locally and nationally… [and] to believe in American democracy. The American dream is definitely impacted by these efforts that make it so difficult for us to participate.”

So why are white people so afraid of people of color voting? I saw Ava DuVernay’s documentary titled 13th that details the profits made from wrongfully incarcerated black people. I know deep down many whites are afraid of losing their death grip on America, but why go to such lengths to keep us quiet? 

Arisha believes that “a lot of the issues and values we support are against models of privatization, where corporate actors are seeking to profit from different crises. And oftentimes, black people are voting for a healthcare system that is affordable and accessible for everyone. Or voting against an incarceration system that feels deaf. There’s a ton of actors who not only hold values of supremacy but are making money off the suffering and pain of black people. Us showing up and voting makes it more difficult for them to do those things, and they’re very aware of that.”

Corporate actors best beware, because us black people are very aware. And we’re making moves. Color of Change is working to increase voter awareness in black communities; in some areas it’s the first time people are being told their vote matters. 

“We’ve really been focusing on how to get to a point where we can expand the black electorate. Lots of people talk about how black voters achieved a higher participation rate during the election. And we believe that there are so many more eligible voters who still aren’t participating and need to join the conversation… We’ve been really focusing on irregular black voters, people who showed up once to vote for Obama or never showed up at all. Having our members engage with them about the issues at stake and why voting matters. About five states in these past election cycles were contacting millions of black voters who normally don’t get contacted.” 

“We’re in this era where campaigns and candidates have all of this data on who is most likely to vote. All of their campaigns and polling are predicted [by] who the machine says are likely voters. That means tons of people, not just black people but millions of eligible voters, never receive a piece of mail or a phone call or a door knock or a text message. So we’re trying to talk to those who have been left out of that universe of people and asking them to join with a community of other black people and our allies to retake our democracy.”

This was both exciting and disheartening to hear. Millions of people are finally taking advantage of their right to vote. The work Arisha and Color of Change is doing is astonishing and necessary. I wanted to know more about Arisha’s thoughts on the impact of black women in politics, since we are often the most overlooked and disenfranchised of all minority people. Color of Change is making sure black women are engaged and involved. They hosted a black women’s brunch with over 15,000 people in attendance throughout the year, thousands of whom then stepping into leadership roles within the organization itself. They are investing time and money into black women, providing us with opportunities to get involved and improve our own communities. 

Most of my peers are white women, so I found Arisha’s point of view refreshing. When conversations turn political with my white friends, I get frustrated. They don’t understand the stakes black people have to consider when voting. White people vote for their own right to exercise free speech, by voting in a way that I consider wasteful, based on a few singular issues that only affect them specifically, or not voting at all if they don’t like the candidates. 

“Black women, although united, [are] also not monolithic. All of the challenges that working families are facing are also faced by black women. Most of the women we talk to care more about the education system [and] healthcare than they do about police violence. I think black women have become sort of the moral authority in this country, and we tend to show up not just for our families but for our communities at large. So we’ve seen the refrain ‘trust black women,’ or ‘trust black voters,’ and I think that trust in the ability of black women and their families to win elected [office] is much more headed [in the right direction], because we’ve seen time and [again] that we can take an election. To be a black woman is to be at the intersection of a ton of issues… Black women have a very intricate understanding of how different systems intersect with one another.”

Caucasians vote for themselves as individuals. African Americans and other people of color, specifically women, vote with the best interest of our entire communities at heart. How long will it take for white people to realize that systems of racism can only continue their support? Support meaning doing nothing but wearing a pink hat and claiming to not be racist, even though they voted third-party in the last presidential election. 

Black people are continuing to bring awareness. We are much better represented in media currently than any other minority. But it hasn’t felt like that exposure was really doing anything for us. Arisha pointed out that this is the concept of presence versus power, as exemplified by the August 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri. In the immediate days after the murder of black teenager Michael Brown by local police, the people of Ferguson were rightfully outraged and took to the streets. They demanded justice and the Internet was paying attention. But justice was not served; Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted. Arisha asserted that this visibility must be converted into actual power and ability to impact these kinds of decisions. It seems like a daunting task to me, but Color of Change knows exactly how to get it done.

“We’re focusing on prosecutor elections,” it says on their site. “When popularized, they can motivate black voter participation more than most others, and though they often run under the radar, prosecutor elections have an outsized impact on the life and wellbeing of black communities.” Success on this level will influence higher and higher-profile elections. In some ways, it already has. Even though Abrams and Gillum were defeated, Aisha reminded me that while it was disappointing not to break that glass ceiling this time, this is the closest black candidates have come to upending those political spaces. Color of Change is working to maintain and increase this momentum in future election cycles. 

It is amazing to see some form of progress on a personal scale. But in my own life, I still feel racially isolated and that I’m preaching to deaf ears. Too often I find myself the only person of color in the room when politics creep into conversation, forcing me to speak for all black people. I related this to Arisha, who encouraged me to remember that while these arguments are often presented as left versus right, at their core they’re about people. We have to have the courage to share our story and push the line for our fellow people of color. She knows how frustrating it can be to hold conversations with those who can’t see past their privilege to others affected. She also said it’s okay for people of color to expect our white friends to show up for us as well as themselves. “As black people, even though it’s uncomfortable and unfair, we need to begin to demand that those claiming to be our friends actually are.” It would be easier to smash through a cinderblock wall with just my head than try to make a white person understand how black people are affected by political outcomes. But talking to Arisha made me feel hopeful about the future of black people, in voting, in changing the outcome of elections, and impacting real, lasting change. 

Arisha encourages anyone to reach out to Color of Change, whether they feel confused about their voice in the voting booth and within their community as a person of color, or even if they just want to get involved. I’ve definitely been inspired and enlightened. It’s been so hard for black people to be involved in decisions that affect us for many painful, historical reasons. But with the continued efforts of organizations like Color of Change and people like Arisha, equality feels closer than it did yesterday. 

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