African Americans Can—And Must—Rewrite The Nov 2 Story

Isaiah J. Poole

African-American voters are once again in a pivotal position to decide on November 2 who controls the House of Representatives, and by extension whether the economic damage done to African American families in the past decade will be repaired in the foreseeable future.

There are currently 11 races in House districts where the African-American voting-age population is 15 percent or higher that political statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com projects will switch from Democrat to Republican on November 2. These are all districts rated as “competitive” in a Joint Center for Political Studies report earlier this month, and indeed, in seven of these races the margin between the Democratic and Republican candidate was projected by Silver this week to be 10 points or less. One additional race in this category is rated 50-50 by Silver.

Where the Black Vote Could Make A Difference

If the Democratic candidates, with the help of black voters, were ahead in each of these 12 districts, Silvers’ projection on October 28 of Republicans emerging from Election Day with 232 House seats and the Democrats with 203 instead becomes a projection in which Democrats are within three seats of keeping their House majority.

But there is a serious question here that we’ve touched on in other posts about the importance of voting in Nov. 2. Why should we vote for candidates who in too many cases have not earned our vote?

The answer is it’s not just about you and your member of Congress. It’s about the difference between a “people’s House” in which progressives who care about the unique struggles of African-American families are at least at the table and one in which the very idea of devoting special attention to the nation’s continuing racial disparities is swept off the table and those who would bring those disparities to the nation’s attention are shunned.

It is true that one of these districts is represented by a Democrat who voted against the economic recovery bill, the health care reform bill and the financial reform package. Only three incumbents in this group voted for all three.

These members of Congress, and for that matter the candidates who are running against them, need to be challenged to support economic policies that will not only lead to broad prosperity but will reduce the economic disparities between people of color and the rest of America.

These disparities, and their impact on the long-term health and well-being of the country, have been largely absent from the political debate, especially among those carrying the “tea-party” banner. If the House ends up in the wrong hands, these issues will be placed under the purview of ideological demagogues whose policies will make these conditions worse. Three examples:

  • The unemployment rate among African Americans has been hovering over 16 percent in recent months; among whites, it is 8.7 percent. This calls for targeted efforts in high-unemployment areas where the private sector has repeatedly failed to invest on its own. Instead, conservative vows to cut government spending in the midst of a weak economy will mean cuts in programs that would spur job creation in these communities. And conservative plans to lock in the Bush administration’s across-the-board tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans will do nothing to encourage capital to flow into these communities.
  • Nearly twice as many African-American households had their homes foreclosed as white families, and the racial disparities remain among white and black families with similar incomes, according to a report by the Center for Responsible Lending. That same report concludes that $350 billion worth of wealth has been wiped out in communities of color by the foreclosure crisis alone. Conservatives’ refusal to do anything to prevent predatory and discriminatory lending practices targeted at African-American communities is a major cause of the current economic recession, but now that financial reform is on the books some right-wing candidates, at the behest of the same Wall Street institutions responsible for the economic devastation of communities ranging from inner-city Detroit to upwardly mobile Prince George’s County, Md., are vowing to undo some of its key elements.
  • There has been a fourfold increase in the wealth gap between white and African-American households in the past 25 years, says a report by the Brandeis University Institute on Assets and Social Policy. White families on average saw their assets grow from $22,000 to $100,000 between 1984 and 2007; African-American families on average saw their assets grow from $2,000 to $5,000. We need an agenda of broad prosperity based on good jobs that pay a living wage, public investment in schools and communities, incentives for private investment, a commitment to retirement security based on a strengthened Social Security system and, above all, leadership that commits the nation to removing the continuing effects of racism. What the Tea-Party fringe offers is guardianship of white privilege wrapped in the language of victimhood, the mythology that black and brown people are taking something away from them when in fact working-class black people and working-class white people are both being bled dry by policies that have caused a massive transfer of wealth upward to the uber-wealthy.

What do African Americans lose if the House of Representatives becomes dominated by Tea-Partiers and their more mainstream conservative allies? For one thing, it means that three House committees and 18 subcommittees will no longer be chaired by African-American members of Congress.

So if the House Judiciary Committee, currently chaired by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is confronted with Voting Rights Act violations coming out of the Nov. 2 elections, will efforts by Tea Party activists to suppress the black vote be investigated? Or will an allegation of “voter intimidation” trumped up by a couple of conservative activists for the Fox News crowd dominate the committee’s agenda?

Will the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., spend its energy on making sure government programs operate efficiently and ethically or will it become the chief venue for right-wing witch hunts against President Obama and other administration officials?

Will the Homeland Security Committee, now chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., continue to ask critical questions about how the nation should best protect itself from terrorism or will it become the next spear-tip for right-wing Islamaphobia and assaults on civil liberties?

There are similar questions to be asked in regard to the leadership of all of the House committees, particularly ones with responsibility for funding and overseeing education, health, labor, housing, economic development and transportation. Each of these committees would see their agendas shift radically away from the needs of African-American families to focus on an agenda bought and paid for by corporate America and delivered by conservatives under the sway of Tea-Party extremists.

Staying home and stewing in your dissatisfaction over your political choices on Election Day is never a good option, but this year the price of doing so is way too high. Go to the polls and make a choice. Tell that candidate you are voting for him or her not because of a job well done or promises made. You are voting for that candidate because of the work you expect to be done. They are there to address the concerns of you, your family and your community. And make sure that they understand that they will have no job security as long as disproportionate numbers of African-American families suffer continued economic and social insecurity.

We know how conservatives want to write the Election Day story. African-American voters have the power to edit in a different ending—but only if we write our votes on ballots and then work after election day to guard the change.

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A personal note: I wish that I could count myself as one of the people whose vote could alter the makeup of the House of Representatives. But I can’t.

As one of the nearly 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, I do not have a full voting member in the House of Representatives. We do have the longtime progressive Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton representing us (who is expected to handily defeat a Republican whose campaign is managed by none other than the radical antiabortionist Randall Terry).

But while we can’t directly call the shots in Congress, Congress can call the shots on us. And that’s another reason why progressives need to show up at the polls in force.

This year, the District joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont in legalizing same-sex marriages. Congress could not pass a law ending gay marriage in those five states (which is why conservatives are angling for a constitutional amendment instead). But because the District of Columbia does not have the same rights and privileges as a state, Congress can overturn decisions made by local officials at its own whim.

It has done so before, preventing the city from using its own funds to provide needle exchange programs during the height of the city’s AIDS epidemic or abortion services paid for with local dollars approved by the mayor and City Council. For much of the time the city had a domestic partnership law, Congress prohibited the city from using its own funds to print and issue the partnership certificates. Conservatives fought to keep the city from enforcing its gun laws until a Supreme Court ruling forced the city to weaken its laws.

It’s worth remembering how conservatives regard the decisions made by District of Columbia residents through their elected representatives the next time you hear a right-wing politician rhapsodize about how decisions should be made at the local level, not by members of Congress.

An arch-conservative gay-marriage opponent stands to take over the House oversight committee for the District of Columbia, and there are no shortage of out-of-town, anti-gay activists, having failed this year to whip up sentiment to elect anti-gay-marriage mayoral or City Council candidates, who will now look to Congress to undo by fiat what the city had decided democratically.

So, if progressives fail to show up on November 2, my marriage could be annulled. An election doesn’t get much more personal than that.

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