No one has been elected to speak on behalf of all Black people, please read with this truth in mind — AL Gilmore
Earlier this year, it was Black voters in South Carolina that gave Biden the push he needed to become the nominee. This is worth remembering as we continue to wade through the prolonged disaster that is this year’s election. Our collective fatigue, nausea, and horror at the sight of early vote counts again unveiling America’s undeterred enthusiasm for white supremacy and morally derelict leadership was, at least temporarily, abated by the overwhelming influence of Black voters from Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.
Because white people compulsively edit everything Black people do… emerging results were predictably followed by a deluge of commentary and creative interpretation about the motivations — and purposes — of Black folk. The most obvious problematic narratives have questioned why Trump gained in support among Black men, while omitting questions about how and why Trump’s already high support among white women grew even more.
To be clear: early exit polls (which are only rudimentary approximations of the truth) indicate that 87% of Black votes went to Biden, with just 12% going to Trump. Comparatively, 57% of white voters backed Trump. Of note, Black women favored Biden by an even wider margin, giving Trump just 7% of their votes. Black voters were younger than they have ever been and came out in record numbers. See for yourself.
The less obvious problematic commentary on the Black Vote has been the boldness with which others (read white) are prepared to take the liberty of interpreting these actions through their own worldview. Posts surfacing on social media already exude 2020 white guilt book club-level wokeness:
- “Black people have saved us again.”
- “We really owe a debt of gratitude to Black women.”
- “How do you plan to thank Black women, youth, and organizers for delivering us a victory?”
I have intentionally not linked individual posts here, because singular and collective responses to the social excitement and outcry of this election will all be imperfect. These narratives aren’t necessarily all promoted by white people about Black people, nor are they necessarily all admonished by Black people, because we are interconnected social beings who are all afflicted by the disease of whiteness, and context and nuance will never operate on a dichotomy. But the fragile, slippery undertones of who shapes narratives about whom, and the very implicit assumptions woven into our real-time story telling are both manifest and consequential.
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These reactions have drifted on to attributing Black voter turnout in Clayton County to retribution for Trump’s crude remarks about late senator John Lewis — as though Black people are more motivated when provoked by white insults, than inspired by Black hope and flourishing.
The problem with “Black people have saved America from itself” is that the world has yet to fully conceive of a reality where Black people exist by, of, and for themselves. By some form of automation, the possibilities of Black existence are compulsively circumscribed to fit within a framework of broader purpose as defined for, and not by Black people. By white default, Black being is chronically constrained and censored. What white people often fail to realize, is the ways that they instinctively position Black resources — intellect, time, community capital, organizing, and “results” — within their pre-specified world view of what Black people are for in the first place. In my world of academia, Black people are for getting and keeping minorities in colleges and jobs that don’t value them or keep them safe, convincing Black folks to join research studies that overpromise and underdeliver, and smiling through institutional promotion of their success story that no one has invested in or cultivated while others accept accolades for their good behavior. It would appear, that it has not yet occurred even to our allies, that our actions and their purposes neither need nor desire their interpretation.
The truth is that Black people’s actions are continually circumscribed to serve as a convenient means for perpetually mending society’s unfulfilled needs. And society’s imaginings of Black life remain so small as to envision our civic action as more altruistic than emancipatory.
Because the diminution of Black purpose in our cultural lexicon is most often very subtle, we must be deliberate and discerning in peeling back the layered meanings of Black savior-hood. This means interrogating the specific violence that is asking Black people to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of their vote serving to save a country that still cannot admit it exists because of centuries of forced and unpaid Black labor. It means acknowledging the constant trauma of having to reconcile the inconsistencies and exhaustions of performative allyship with the brutality of a country that still terrorizes and robs Black people of equal opportunity, justice, and at times life itself.
To suggest that Black people showed up in record numbers at the polls to save us from ourselves is to view Black people as inexhaustible resources, organizers, and benefactors at the bequest of society’s most urgent and preventable disasters (see also on promoting Black women to elected office before things fall apart). Rather than to think that Black people show up to vote because they want a future with paid family leave where their children don’t have to go through live shooter drills both in their schools and on their streets. A future of flourishing where we experience more leisure and recreation because we experience less job and pay discrimination. A future where Black people progress further in their unending commitment to prosper in a world free from structural and systemic oppression.
What is more likely, is that Black people turned out to vote for many of the same reasons other people did: they see that their core values are on the line in a way they have never been before.
The important distinction is in what those values are. Unlike white Americans, Black people overwhelmingly voted to disavow racism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, fascism, corruption and abuse of power, gross negligence in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and unconscionable levels of incompetence and moral depravity in the country’s highest elected office. As with most things, Black people did this with the odds stacked against them.
Black people voted in record numbers to say no to human rights violations and police killings while reeling from devastating losses as 1 in every 1,000 Black Americans has died from COVID-19. Black people voted in record numbers to say no to senseless loss of life, lies, and willful ignorance while facing residual and renewed disenfranchisement.
Brave and relentless leaders, including Stacey Abrams among countless others, carried the added and invisible weight of organizing across their communities to combat these unequal barriers to Black civic engagement.
Black people showed up in record numbers to vote for Biden because they have things to vote for and dream for and believe in that exist entirely outside of white society’s current imagination. Black people showed up in record numbers for all of the things they are rightfully owed and have been denied. Unlike other segments of the electorate, I think that most Black people are not eager to withhold privileges for themselves, but are keen to see these rights equitably distributed to others.
As you look ahead to 2024 and whatever other foreseeable and unforeseeable calamities might befall us, know that Black people are not coming to save America from itself. America, as she is idealized to be will never discover her better self until the growing swaths of white electorate rallying for Trump — and their counterparts — do the hard work of saving themselves.
A part of this work will involve deeply internalizing the fundamental and profound truth that Black people are not here for your salvation, betterment, entertainment, or anything else really… because
Black people do not exist for you.
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