Much of the discussion this election cycle has been about changing demographics.
Black voters turned out overwhelmingly for Obama. Millennial voters, who represent the start of the next demographic phase, did too. Republicans are blaming each other for losing the Latino vote; Steve Schmidt, head of McCain’s 2008 campaign, told MSNBC this was the last election that someone could possibly win without getting a good portion of Latinos, which of course Gov. Romney didn’t. Mike Huckabee said Republicans have done a terrible job of reaching out to people of color, while DREAMers are claiming credit—and I’ll give it to them—for forcing POTUS’s hand to deliver the Deferred Action executive order, which in turn delivered him many Latino votes.
But demographics alone aren’t going to run a policy agenda through the system. It’s not like we, people of color, can just exist and, as a result, lead politicians to pass helpful policies simply by asking. Huge challenges remain in economic justice, immigration, environment, education and housing reform. The nation’s understanding of what it will take to generate racial, economic and gender equity remains shallow, focused largely on how new constituencies threaten the old white way, per Bill O’Reilly.
But if we keep doing our work, if we keep fighting, that collective understanding will deepen in ways that make some real breakthroughs possible.
Voting yesterday, I paid more attention than I usually do. My polling place is a school gymnasium around the corner from my apartment in Rego Park, Queens. There were about 20 voters and as many poll workers at 9:30 a.m. The mood was hushed—serious but not solemn. People smiled at each other. Many older voters of all colors, though heavy on the Eastern Europeans as is the neighborhood. The poll workers were diverse, and there were interpreters for Hindi, Chinese, and Spanish. A smiling woman in a suit posed for a picture and I thought “new immigrant voter.” It was different from 2008, when Election Day had the “historic” mantle. Yesterday, I felt like I was doing an everyday kind of thing with my neighbors, not so glamorous as the last time but just as important. To be honest, I don’t find elections the most compelling form of political activity, and I often vote with a feeling of being on auto pilot.
But over the last few months, I’ve been influenced by my friend Judith Browne-Dianis. Browne-Dianis is the director of the Advancement Project, which has been doing stellar work to protect the vote, as it does every election season. Every time she talks about voter suppression, I see her calling up childhood memories of going with her mother to the polls. I see her acknowledging her elders for making sure she’d be able to vote in the first place. I see her putting on notice anyone who dares attempt suppression on her watch. Her passion for a fair democracy has been reinforced by our own Voting Rights Watch project, which has me all agitated about that suppression, too.
The way the voting rights community has come together with groups like Color of Change, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and Take Action Minnesota has been astounding in the sheer volume of resistance, monitoring, problem-solving and communication. My social media feeds made it clear that people were looking after each other at the polls. The memes of this election for me will always be “stay in line!” and “don’t let anyone tell you you can’t vote!”
And that’s the message I take into today. Stay until it’s done, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. The last four years has taught me that presidents matter, but movements matter more. Politicians, and everyday Americans too, do great things when movements make it impossible to do anything else. The tone and energy that went into preventing voter suppression, combined with the tone and energy of my polling place this morning, is what we need to ride for the next four years. It is an outraged, urgent force that changes how we look at things, combined with a respectful inclusiveness that enables everyone to participate.
Judith Browne-Dianis will be among the plenary speakers at Facing Race 2012 next week. Join her, Junot Diaz and the Colorlines community in Baltimore, Nov. 15-17. Register now!