It seems like every four years the Black community, as well as the nation, invests great emotional energy in a presidential election. We are hit with carefully crafted messages that either try to guilt or scare us to the polls. Political campaigns engage in dramatic symbolism to compel us to support their candidate, and make the case with earnest effort that choosing the alternative will doom the nation. Our institutions and our leadership are deployed to be messengers; reinforcing the soundbites that bombard us on radio, television and over the Internet. In the end, we have a winner and we have a loser, but the relative advancement of African-Americans remains debatable.
We are at that point again. After a contentious and painfully divisive presidential campaign, in two months we will inaugurate Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president. Trump, likely the most controversial candidate to win election to the White House, is already turning heads with some of the individuals he is appointing or considering appointment to his inner circle. And many people, particularly young people, are taking to the streets to express their disapproval of the President-elect. Contrary to the claim that this election elevated racism and bigotry; the 2016 presidential election simply amplified and gave cover to deeply held beliefs of many white Americans concerning race and gender.
Elections do have consequences but I would argue that our daily disposition has far greater consequence on the type of country we are creating. Americans don’t know each other. We are victims of our own isolation, living lives separate and apart, unaware of the realities of race, class, gender and region, and misled by an education system that does not illuminate and a historical narrative that is blatantly false and buttressed by lies. We are a nation that is more comfortable in costume than in our own skin.
We can’t change this nation if we rely upon a presidential election to do so. The work that is required is done on a daily basis. It’s what we read; how we inform ourselves and then what we do with that information. It requires vigilance and active engagement. It’s fine to be expressive on social media platforms but that can’t substitute for being present. For all the time posting on Facebook or tweeting, or watching cable television news channels, if an equivalent amount of time is spent attending local Board of Education or town council meetings, or communicating with your state legislator, the progress we all want will be like the object in your passenger side car mirror – closer than it seems.
The one truth of this election is that there are a lot of people in this country who feel left out. And while it’s true some of these folks scapegoat Blacks and Latinos and blame us for their precarious economic circumstances, many simply are bewildered, frustrated and angry, and will glom onto any message that will ease their pain. Most of us have no clue as to what other people are experiencing, not even our neighbors, let alone someone living three states away. Our only exposure is when a natural disaster or a tragedy strikes, and suddenly our concern leapfrogs rivers, mountains and streams.
The best way to respond to this election if you are truly concerned about this nation is to do something. Contact a local school and see how you can volunteer. Talk to young people in your community and find out their concerns and be supportive of their growth and development. If there is a local shelter in your area, find out what they need and how you can help. If you attend a church or mosque regularly challenge your congregation to be of service outside the walls of its building.
You can also be pro-active in making your voice heard. Let your mayor, local council, school board members, county officials and state legislators know you exist and communicate your concerns to those who have the power to spend your local tax dollars and shape your community. Don’t assume they know and don’t trust that their intentions match what you deem a priority. Too often we let our elected officials act as free agents and only react when they pursue an agenda that we deem harmful to our community. We need to practice accountability as a way of doing business. This means not falling for trivial gestures from elected officials as buying tickets to your event, purchasing an ad in a journal or showing up in your church – when an election comes around. We need to make dollars, programs and policy the basis of our interaction with local elected officials, and nothing else. Not their pledge of solidarity, their partisan label or their claim of spiritual kinship.
It’s time to get to work. I am very supportive of public demonstrations and protests, as they can have a unifying effect. What we have to do though is truly engage in communities and be committed to the long game. It does us no good fretting over the state of our federal government, if we are paying no attention to the foundation of our house – our local communities. We have to come to understand that all politics is truly local. Those offices we dismiss as insignificant are the very positions that create the climate for what transpires on a national scale. If the disparaging remarks of a county administrator regarding the First Lady can trigger a national outcry, the significance of her public office should not be dismissed.
And the next time you fly or drive out of state, pick up a local newspaper and watch the local television broadcast. Get a sense of what people who don’t live next to you are thinking and the challenges they are encountering. We have to strike a different conversation in America and find a way to bridge some of the gap. We are not going to eliminate racism or sexism or religious bigotry as it is deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of many Americans. What we can do is work to create a conscious majority, a national electorate that understands our uplift is essential to the survival of this nation. It won’t be easy but what is. One thing for sure, it won’t happen if we don’t work to make it so.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.
Correction: The official referenced who made disparaging remarks toward the First Lady was a county development officer, not the county clerk. We regret the error.