With the most crucial set of Congressional midterm, state legislative and gubernatorial elections in modern American political history happening in 49 days, it is still unclear to many observers how mobilized an equally crucial Black vote will be when November 6th arrives.
The mood in what is a very noisy Black cultural moment, further lit by anti-Trump platitudes, gives us little indication such mobilization will happen on the large scale needed. Perhaps we’ll be pleasantly surprised — at least we hope. Because, so consequential is this upcoming election that it should be only natural to expect near total — if not total — registered and eligible Black voter turnout by electoral D-Day. Yet, anecdotal surveying along with polling data currently show otherwise. Collective Black attention to it may be heightened among those already plugged into the “super voter,” advocacy champion, campaign and political class that stays tuned on a constant stream of MSNBC all day. And we do see an encouraging growth spurt of competitive Black candidates on the state and federal level.
But when scanning the Black pop-cultural landscape for signs of similar electoral awareness and action, that’s not the case.
Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis proudly dons an oversized Nike emblem shirt on the Emmys red carpet in solidarity with former NFL star-turned-protest-celeb Colin Kaepernick. Her directorial benefactor, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, breaks a prolonged mum on that mysterious anti-Trump episode and his war to create content capturing the current national angst. Meanwhile, football enters a third consecutive season with a now predictable lineup of countless Black players kneeling, egged on more so by Trump evisceration of them on Twitter than by the original cause. Jemele Hill recently frees herself from the draconian, speech-suppressing claws of ESPN after her ongoing anti-Trump tweets and justifiable tirades against white supremacy. A couple of weeks later, Drake is blasting the president — or, in his words, “the f*****g idiot in office” — during a Brooklyn concert and the crowd lights up, of course. Aging, but respected rapper Snoop Dogg is caught on SiriusXM launching into an expletive-filled diatribe on Trump and Trump voters, Part II from his earlier “F*** Donald Trump!” chant while watching a UFC fight. Drumming up book sales, former Trump protégé and White House recorder Omarosa Manigault-Newman claims that a tape of the president using the ‘N-word’ will be released before the midterms, while swearing Black people now “love her.” All this, and more, above after a summer of tweet-infested and television interview anti-Trump dunks from LeBron James.
What Black celebrity or pop-culture icon isn’t making some kind of viral statement about Pumpkin Head in the White House or finding some creative way to get noticed (cash in) by tapping into the community’s shattered nerves? But, what’s striking about this non-stop stream of Trump-this/Trump-that anguish is that there hasn’t been one big moment bridge to the upcoming midterms. Some (like Kaepernick) aren’t even registered to vote, nor are they making loud statements motivating others to get registered.
Not that they’re legally obligated to do so. And the other explanation will be “well, why should we expect them to? They are celebrities after all.” But, if the latter is the case, then why even mention the president at all? Why even dip into the football protest fray? Why not just stay out of it, altogether?
Of course, that’s not happening. Everyone wants to say something, and some even want the president to highlight them in one of his tweets. Which is why it’s troubling that no one on that massive, well-lit and very prominent pop-culture stage has added the need for Black anxiety to translate into electoral action by November 6th. Rely on rhetorical slights against the president alone, and one would get the impression there’s no election. That’s tragic considering those voices carry much weight in any national Black conversation — or, rather, the places, shows, programs and stages most regularly watch or listen to.
2018 is not a year to act as if an election doesn’t exist. When it comes up as a subject, nor is it the year for casual, after-thought mention. These elections will be the national turning point, a defining moment on whether we will — as former President Obama is now saying — “restore sanity” or fall very decisively into the dangerous abyss. Nothing will send as strong a signal, a message and a blow to anything Trump and enabling Republican politicians are doing than an election with full participation from all corners of the electorate. Hurling insults and making cute fashion statements don’t hurt elected officials — electoral outcomes do. Turning Trump’s name into profanity doesn’t hurt him in any shape or form; but, completely overhauling the partisan composition on Capitol Hill truly does.
Nike online sales have surged 31 percent since the Kaepernick ad and the company’s shares have spiked to $86 per share. But Nike isn’t running for office, isn’t owned by Black people and is not running any sort of advocacy operation against racist Republican officeholders and candidates on the state and federal level. Yet, the moment has elicited head-nod satisfaction from Black discourse as if the swoosh has swooped in to save the day. As if change is in the air.
Change isn’t in the air until we know the outcomes on November 6th (November 7th if there are too many close-to-call races).
Polls show reason for concern. Over the past eight elections, 43 percent of registered Black voters have been “non-voters” according to a recent NPR analysis, compared to 13 percent who are classified as “frequent voters” (voting consistently in 6 of the last 8 elections). Income is also a prime determinant of turnout: those making less than $30,000 annually are nearly 60 percent of non-voters, and those making $30,000 — $75,000 are nearly 30 percent of non-voters.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls reflect some alarming trends for Democrats just ahead of those elections, with nearly 9 percent of Black voters between the ages of 18–29 saying they will “not vote,” along with 12 percent who “don’t know” — which could very well mean they’re afraid to admit they’re not voting. That’s similar to the high number of Black voters overall in a YouGov poll, 14 percent, who say they will “probably not vote” or “definitely will not vote” this year — compared to only 9 percent of white voters. Another 14 percent of Black voters, in that same poll, claim they “might vote.”
Black voters, and potential Black voters who might be eligible and not yet registered, don’t need feel-good, fist-pump dopamine hits on Trump. And, yeah, that “Wakanda Forever” train has passed. Black voters — the most decisive voting bloc in a slew of House, Senate, gubernatorial and state legislative races — need mobilization to the polls like it’s 1965. Instead, there’s a sense of flatness and business-as-usual around this election, as if it doesn’t matter or it’s not relevant. Yet, the Black pop-culture conversation always finds itself among the noisiest of “Resistance” demographics; in a Quinnipiac poll, 81 percent of Black voters say they are either “somewhat” or “very dissatisfied” with the “way things are going” and, unsurprisingly, 54 percent (the highest of any demographic) feel that the economy is “not so good” or “poor.” But, what will Black voters do about it? Will the electoral bite match the anxious bark?