During President-elect Donald Trump’s recent “Thank You” tour he repeatedly took time to thank the countless African-American voters who decided not to vote. He categorized the disenfranchisement of black voters as “great” and he wanted to thank black voters for staying at home.
“We did great with the African-American community,” said Trump at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was a big—so thank you to the African-American community.” The predominantly white audience at the rally applauded loudly in response.
As 2016 comes to a close and the new year dawns, and as America’s first black president prepares to leave the White House, African Americans, and the rest of America, must confront the fact that our incoming president celebrates when Americans, specifically black Americans, do not vote. With each passing day, it becomes clearer what “Making American Great Again” means to Trump.
Trump’s victory comes with the help of a concerted, systematic agenda by Republican-controlled states to implement voting restrictions that disproportionately harmed black voters. Throughout the South, in areas with high populations of African Americans, black voter turnout decreased from 2012. Nationally, in areas were African Americans make up over 30 percent of the population, voter turnout dropped by nearly 5 percent.
Following Shelby County v. Holder and the nationwide rise in voting restrictions there was an inevitability about the reduction in black voter participation. These additional obstacles made it less likely that Obama’s voter coalition would stay intact.
Yet voter suppression is not the only reason for this reduction. Many black voters simply did not like Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s unfavorables remained high for the duration of her campaign. Her “super-predators” comment from the 1990s made her candidate non grata to segments of black voters. Other potential black voters argued that civil disobedience was the best method for creating change and they opted to abstain from voting. Others complained that neither candidate was good enough and that both would ignore the black community. This lack of acknowledgement or perceived disrespect from the candidates indicated to some voters that their voices and lives did not matter, so it seemed illogical to believe that their vote could suddenly matter, too.
With no Barack Obama spearheading the Democratic ticket the black electorate splintered and created an opening that Trump could exploit. In 2016, this splintering definitely harmed the Democratic Party and emboldened the Republicans who celebrate our increased disenfranchisement.
Black Lives Matter also made a vocal impression on this election cycle, but its decentralized structure made it nearly impossible for the movement to convert its passionate supporters who steadfastly work toward criminal justice reform into a mobilized unified voting bloc. In many ways, the emboldened, passionate, engaged, yet electorally fractured nature of the Black Lives Matter movement represents a microcosm of the grander dilemma black voters face as we head into 2017.
In January, the image of the Obamas leaving the White House will probably hit the black community harder than many of us anticipate. Throughout his presidency the GOP wanted to defeat him and destroy everything that he had created. Compromise was rarely a consideration. The fact that they couldn’t defeat Obama and that he will leave the White House as a very popular president will fill black voters with pride. Yet watching Obama yield to Trump and a GOP that is still committed to destroying his legacy will be a hard pill to swallow.
Yet by the time this trauma occurs the GOP may already have the wheels in motion to further disenfranchise and marginalize black voters. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, will have his senate confirmation hearings on Jan. 10-11. Civil rights advocates have legitimate concerns about Sessions, including the likelihood that he will severely cut the civil rights division of the Justice Department that Obama and Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch revitalized.
In the new year, the black community will wake up to an America where the powers that be seek to minimize our voices. We will have to reacquaint ourselves with the struggles and progress of the 1960s and the 1860s to make sense of this new America as we combat regressive forces that aim to return us to a more oppressive era.
There will be a yearning for a unifying black leader to emerge from the black community. Many may want Obama to continue to carry that torch. He will still live in Washington, and the image of Obama standing up to Trump’s bigotry in the nation’s capital could inspire many. Rev. William Barber, his Moral Mondays movement, and his opposition to North Carolina’s radical, racist, and anti-democratic politics might become the champion many black voters unite around. Politicians Cory Booker and Keith Ellison could obtain more influential roles nationally within the black community. The Black Lives Matter movement will continue to energize especially younger African Americans. There remain many significant voices that could potentially unite the black electorate in the years to come, and I am confident that we will remain vocal in championing racial equity and progressive change.
But the lessons of 2016 should show us that regardless of the existence of these galvanizing individuals or movements, the black community still faces the same basic threat of systematic disenfranchisement. American democracy has largely been structured around legitimizing and striving to find common ground with those who want to oppress black Americans and instituting structures that prevent us from having a voting electorate strong enough to influence any facet of our democracy. And sadly this has not changed.
The progress that Obama represented masked this ever-present threat, and gave black voters greater encouragement to express our individual liberties. Yet America responded with increased white tribalism and white supremacy, the rise of Trump, and a country that increasingly celebrates the disenfranchisement of African Americans.
Inevitably new black leaders will emerge when Obama leaves office, but the galvanizing, unifying message of the black community has already been defined by the Republican Party and Trump. From here on out, black voters can ill-afford to stay at home or not vote against the voices that celebrate and describe our increased disenfranchisement as “great” for America.