As the mid-term elections approach Democrats are in a panic. The party’s control of the U.S. Senate is appearing endangered and Republicans might increase their majority in the House. The President’s party is also nervous about several gubernatorial races and Democrats are treating the incumbent in the White House as if he has an infectious disease. Democratic candidates are not only asking the President to stay away, some are distancing themselves from President Obama’s policies. To top it off, former Obama administration officials, including Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of Defense, have written tell-all books in which they go out of their way to criticize the President.
Meanwhile, the party is hinging its hopes on the Black electorate to help Democrats maintain their Senate majority all the while Black voters are collateral damage from the current dysfunction in our nation’s capital.
What are we to do? My first bit of advice is for Black voters and Blacks in general to understand that voting for Democrats is not enough. This is not a new revelation because this truth has been evident for decades. Pinning our hopes on a single political party or political personalities is a recipe for disaster and we have been eating that soup for some time now. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that the presence of a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of Congress alone will yield the change necessary to improve the social and economic condition of Black Americans, particularly those below the poverty line. While voting is critically important and electing individuals whose values align with ours even more so, our vote is just one behavior that must take hold for us to see real progress in this nation.
Our perspective must be ‘global’ but our focus must be local. While we get mesmerized by Washington politics and the celebrity of elective office in the nation’s capital, we risk the ground right beneath our feet giving way. It might be fun to dabble in Capitol Hill politics but it’s time we paid a lot more attention to our own backyard. We have been inattentive to our local communities to our own peril. The allure of DC politics has left us vulnerable as the politics of local governance plays a much larger role in our daily experiences. It’s time we paid more attention to state legislatures, city and town governments and local school boards. It is these bodies that truly impact our lives on a day-to-day basis.
Just look at the unprecedented changes in public education and you will understand why we need to keep our focus close to home. As school board elections draw dismal turnouts and meetings of Boards of Education have appallingly low attendance of residents, significant changes are occurring in public education that will impact the life chances of Black children. These changes are policy shifts that we pay for out of our local tax assessments, not from a pot of gold in Washington D.C. Likewise, state legislatures across the country are engaging in all sorts of legislative mischief that has the effect of diminishing rights, curbing opportunity and widening already unacceptable racial disparities while also setting the table for the partisan alignment of Congress through redistricting. Few of us have a clue as to the policy debates in our state capital and the cast of elected officials who govern our state.
This errant focus extends beyond the political realm. Blacks have spent far too little time and made paltry investments in building institutional capacity and institutional leadership. We continue to subscribe to a charismatic leadership model, whether in the form of a civil rights leader or increasingly a media personality/celebrity. This almost idol worship leaves us vulnerable to a catastrophe of our own making – the hapless search for the mythical ‘Black leader.’ What we lack are strong institutions that can force systemic change and not a highlight reel of disconnected individual victories. An investment in social policy and civil rights organizations, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will yield far greater dividends than dependency on a few individuals to be lightning rods for social change. And we have the resources to do it; which leads to my last point.
While poverty is real and still impacts almost a quarter of Blacks who live below the poverty line and those defined as the ‘working poor,’ our collective resources are that of a developed nation. When you look at the spending power of Blacks, identified as over a trillion dollars in a recent Nielsen Media and Essence Communications report, our political and economic deficits are shameful. What should we do with our money? My suggestion is to make education, business development and media, priorities. Our HBCUs are sleeping giants and are the cornerstones of any possible Black resurgence. Yet, we are losing these colleges and this administration, like those that preceded, have done very little to make significant investments in the very institutions that have yielded the highest returns for Blacks historically. We must also aggressively build our own businesses that serve a global market but whose ownership is consciously Black and committed to making investments in our community. The piece of the puzzle that continues to evade us is the development of media companies or news media to be specific. We have failed miserably in this regard and have opted instead for laughs as we become the butt of jokes. If you don’t think the news is important, check out your local cable television listings and just count the number of Hispanic and other foreign language news channels that exist. Our on-air fascination with the trivial is embarrassing.
All of this is just a long-winded warning that we would be foolish to pursue a one-dimensional, partisan electoral strategy as our ticket to change. It’s time to change course and quite frankly it’s time we made young people central to this new understanding. While youth have often been the catalyst for change, seldom have the leadership capabilities of young people been respected. We must prepare for the aftermath of the mid-term elections and the reality that 2016 will yield a whole new set of challenges no matter who is the occupant of the White House.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.