By Paul Rozycki
As part of the Tendaji Talks, the Flint Public Library hosted the first of a series of presentations sponsored by Neighborhoods Without Borders on “Racism and the Midterm Election.,” Tuesday evening. Two speakers highlighted the connection between the denial of voting rights, the loss of power, and economic inequality.
Hubert Roberts, a mentor coordinator for Involved Dad, a community organization dedicated to supporting men in their roles as fathers and husbands, outlined the history voting and how the vote was denied to all but white, male, property owners in the early days of the nation.
He argued that the denial of the ballot led to a denial of power and resources over the centuries. Roberts said the lack of voting power has led to a few individuals and families accumulating great wealth at the expense of the great majority of the population. He said that, among other examples, five members of the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, had more wealth than 44 million black families.
Roberts further emphasized how the lack of the vote has led to other inequities such as the high arrest and incarceration rate of African-Americans and the discriminatory treatment by the police in the U.S.
Yet, with all the problems he started and concluded with a reference to the Star Wars saga and said that it should teach us, “How to be tolerant of each other and work together,” for a better world.
Roberts was followed by Natasha Thomas-Jackson, a voter education and voter registration organizer for NextGen America, a group dedicated to encouraging young voters to register, vote and get involved in the political process.
She pointed out that the Millennial generation is now the largest potential voting group in the nation, but that young voters often have the lowest turnout. She described how part of that is due to the pattern of voter suppression in recent years. Those techniques included barriers to students voting while living on college campus, strict voter ID laws, organized intimidation at the polls, few polling places in minority neighborhoods, and the timing of elections when many people have jobs and other obligations that keep them from the polls.
She also said many voters are intimidated by the voting process because high schools and colleges often don’t teach the basics of voting and citizenship.
In a discussion with audience members, some said that in talking with their non-voting friends they often heard the comment “It won’t make any difference” or “I don’t trust any of those politicians.” In response Thomas-Jackson said that while there is real reason for distrust, those comments often reflect the fact that many people are “scared of voting,” because they haven’t done it before and don’t want to look foolish.
Thompson-Jackson pointed out how the voting system can seem complex, by pointing out how many voters are confused by the difference between the primary election, where one can only vote for one party, and the general election, where one can split their ballot between two or more parties. Many issues are confusing and newspapers aren’t able to cover issues and candidates as they did in the past. Gerrymandering also makes voters feel that their vote doesn’t matter.
She said that the key way to encourage new voters, and fight cynicism was to show them how issues that matter to them personally are affected by the vote and those elected.
Both Thomas-Jackson and Roberts discussed how the impact of the criminal justice system disenfranchises minority voters. While convicted felons lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated, in most states, but not all, that right can be restored after the sentence has been served.
In the end, both speakers expressed the view that power is part of the voting process, and that not voting allows power to shift to those who choose to vote, and that elected leaders understand where the votes are, and where they are not, and often make policy with that realization in mind.
The forum is the first of several over the next several months to be held at the Flint Public Library and The New McCree Theater. The League of Women Voters was present to provide voter registration during the presentation.
The Tendaji Talks were created in memory of Tendaji W. Ganges, the executive director of the Office of Educational Opportunities at the University of Michigan-Flint. Ganges was a founding member of Neighborhoods Without Borders, one of the groups sponsoring the lecture series. Other partners and sponsors are the League of Women Voters Flint, the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum, the Ruth Mott Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the Flint Public Library, and the New McCree Theater.
More information about future forums is available at: facebook.com/NeighborhoodsWithoutBorders or 810-845-1767.
EVM political commentator and contributing writer Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.