On the 20 August 1619, the White Lion docked in Virginia, carrying a group of Black Africans who were sold for their labour. In the 400 years that have ensued, African-Americans have faced a constant struggle for equality and justice. Whilst the required parity still often feels so far away, in this month’s United States election, Black voters made sure their voice was heard.
Whilst this election saw the greatest voter turnout in over a century, for many political commentators it was the role of Black voters which caught the eye. Black voters have always been a reliable voting bloc, but they turned out in larger numbers and in key areas this year, particularly in comparison to 2016.
Nationally, African-American voters supported the winning candidate Joe Biden at a rate of around 87% and it was arguably cities with large Black populations, such as Wisconsin, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia, which proved decisive in swinging key battleground states. In Detroit, for example, Biden won 94% of votes and this sizeable margin aided a Democratic victory in the crucial state of Michigan. Even in reliably red states, like Tennessee, Black voters made their feelings known in areas such as Knoxville.
In amongst all this, uncharted territory was explored in the form of the Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. The Californian politician will become the first Asian-American, the first African-American and the first female Vice President next January.
Whether one agrees with the politics of President-elect Biden and his running mate Harris or not, the recent election was a significant moment in Black history. Steven Bland, a clergyman in Detroit, perhaps summed up the feeling amongst Black communities most poignantly when he told a reporter that African-Americans had “gone from picking cotton to picking presidents.”
His message is a powerful one and pits the sizeable turnout of Black voters as another defining moment in the long and relentless road to equality which started in 1619. It is a new chapter in a journey which has been fought in a bloody nineteenth-century Civil War, been captured in a moment of defiance at the 1968 Olympic Games and had high points such as the election of Barack Obama in 2008, amongst many other significant events.
Figures such as Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks have led the way and millions more across the world have supported the struggle. This is no more apparent than in the international ‘Black Lives Matters’ protests following the unlawful killing of George Floyd this year.
With all this said then, questions may be asked as to why black voters surged to the polls. As Louis Strappazon discussed in a recent Silver Linings article, grassroots organisations, led by the likes of Stacey Abrams in Georgia ensured voters were registered, and this sensation can be seen not just at state level but nationwide too. In at least 15 key states organisations such as the ‘Black Votes Matter Fund’ worked tirelessly to ensure people signed up to vote, quite literally in their busloads. Such voter mobilisation during a global pandemic, the like of which has not been experienced for a century, is hugely impressive.
Sydney D. Vassell, a voter from Florida, told us that the division that was sown in recent years was a telling factor for voter participation. She claims that at times “minorities have felt so blatantly disrespected” and believes the nation has developed a culture which has “inspired the worst behaviour in many Americans.” She adds that such a “dramatic increase of black votes” coupled with the importance of this voting group in the final outcome nationally will ensure that African-Americans “remain involved in politics and show up more consistently” in future elections, in what she hopes will be a “reparative” period for race relations. This last point is crucial, as many people from all corners of society feel their vote is meaningless, but as Vassell highlighted, this election shows the importance of registering and making a difference, particularly in the face of apparent alienation.
The views of Vassell were echoed by CNN host Van Jones minutes after the race had been called in Biden’s favour. Jones, fighting back tears, claimed that the election was “vindication” for groups “who have really suffered” in the face of prejudice in recent years.
Whilst there are many Americans who are disappointed with the outcome of the election, the critical role of Black voters in an election, in 2020 of all years, is an important signpost of progress. For those who feel isolated or oppressed, this is a tale of hope that change can be brought about by engaging in democratic processes. As Vassell put it “whilst there is much work left to be done, this acknowledgement of our importance is a key turning point for true equality.”