The violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville has prompted local leaders across the country to begin dismantling visible signs of white supremacy, with cities from San Diego to Baltimore to Gainesville removing or planning to take down their Confederate monuments.
But in Durham, North Carolina, protestors were forced to take matters into their own hands, toppling a statue of a Confederate soldier with the sheer force of their collective will.
The state’s Republican legislature seemingly gave them no other option because they had passed a law making it impossible for anyone but the very same Republican legislature to remove such oppressive monuments.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the North Carolina legislature has done allowing white supremacy to flourish. Since gaining control in 2010, the state’s Republicans have illegally suppressed votes, unconstitutionally drawn district lines and blocked wage increases that would disproportionately limit the wages of the state’s black workforce, among other acts.
That the protesters in North Carolina had no choice but to risk jail time to remove symbols of racism points to a political system that has historically sought to limit participation and liberation.
If we want to dismantle systemic racism — both its overt symbols and the policies that produce racialized outcomes in our economy, our criminal justice system, our government,— we must ensure the full participation of black Americans in our democracy. Ultimately this means ensuring the increased political participation of black communities by aggressively eliminating barriers that block access to the ballot box and investing deeply in the mobilization of black voters.
Black voters play a decisive role in American elections, and they’re the cornerstone of the modern Democratic coalition. Unfortunately, Democrats have long-held to a theory that it should frontload its investment in engaging moderate, predominantly white voters, and hold off until the final weeks before the election to do a last-ditch get out the vote push to bring out black voters. This strategy of engaging white “swing” voters ahead of black voters has repeatedly led to missed opportunities — and recently to outright disaster.
It’s no overstatement to say that this failure to engage black voters with the same investment and energy devoted to “winning back” white swing voters in 2016 handed the White House to a president who ran a campaign that appealed to white supremacists and disgracefully defended their actions in Charlottesville.
Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years, falling by seven percentage points from 2012. Among young black voters, ages 18-29, 8 percent voted for a third-party candidate in 2016. In 2012, that number was 1 percent.
A replay of this failed strategy could doom the Democratic Party in the upcoming gubernatorial race in Virginia, the state where white supremacists just boldly made their stand. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe won in 2013 by maintaining the same level of support among the black electorate that President Obama won in 2012, despite the usual mid-term drop-offs. This year, Democrats need to do as well or better to win it again.
The central lesson out of 2016 is that Democrats can’t afford to be complacent when it comes to black turnout — failure to maintain black support contributed to last year’s devastating loss. If Democrats can create an effective strategy for engaging black voters, they can win. If they don’t, they stand to lose.
Instead of waiting until six weeks before Election Day to blitz black voters with glitzy mailers or radio ads, we must invest time and resources early on and repeatedly engage black voters on issues they care about.
That means going into cities, small towns and rural areas and having real conversations with black voters about issues like creating wealth, jobs and educational opportunities, ending police violence, bringing real justice to our criminal justice system, expanding voting rights and ending white supremacy.
The ugliness and violence on display in Charlottesville has prompted great public reflection on the legacy of white supremacy in America, and even moved some local elected leaders and brave activists to take on systemic racism’s symbolic trappings.
Better still would be if it prompted our political class to rethink how it engages with black voters and build the political will to take institutionalized racism and discrimination head on — whether that’s in state houses or the White House.
Adrianne Shropshire is the executive director of BlackPAC, an independent, Black-led organization that uses the power of year-round political engagement and elections to change our economic, justice and social systems.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.