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Black people who didn’t vote let us down, too

If we criticize the way white people voted, we must rip those who didn’t vote at all

President-elect Donald Trump, at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, postelection rally on Dec. 9, thanked black voters who did not vote. “The African-American community was great to us,” he said. “If they had any doubt, they didn’t vote … And,” he continued, “that was almost as good.” As compared with white voters whom many, including myself, harshly criticized for how they voted, black nonvoters have weathered little castigation. Yet, if we malign whites for ignoring the concerns of people of color when they entered the voting booths, mustn’t we also censure people — and I specifically want to talk about black folk here — who ignored those same concerns by choosing not to enter that booth at all?

Trump’s recent remarks led me to recall a New York Times dispatch published a couple of weeks after the election. Reporter Sabrina Tavernise interviewed various black men and women in a black Milwaukee neighborhood, many of whom chose not to vote in a state that narrowly awarded its 10 electoral votes to Trump. The reporter describes a locale that mirrors a lot of such places across the country — one where both major party candidates left black voters unexcited and where political disillusionment festers, much like the vacant and boarded-up homes seemingly on every block.

One man’s remarks remained with me. He, Cedric Fleming, a 47-year-old barber, lost his health insurance after his divorce. He struggled to find a replacement plan, finally settling on a $300-a-month Affordable Care Act offering. The plan costs too much for him though, leaving him disenchanted with government. Many can relate. “Ain’t none of this been working,” he remarked, referring to pocketbook politics in general. He did not vote. The black population is littered with Cedric Flemings.

I spot multiple problems, however, in such an outlook. One is that if we view government as failing to operate well for people like us, ejecting ourselves from civic engagement offers no solution. Indeed, by eschewing the political process, Fleming distanced himself from a resolution to his apparent main economic grievance, the cost of health care.

President Barack Obama talks about this frequently — the importance of civic engagement. Locating a weakness in how our democracy functions should mark a starting point for positive action, not withdrawal. For our form of governance to operate effectively, we must willingly stare down a formidable obstacle and dedicate ourselves to toppling it. Despondency and self-pity achieve nothing.

Although I consider disengagement an annoying act of self-sabotage, the sheer selfishness of such behavior perturbs me most. During this election, millions worried about Muslim-Americans. They heard their concerns. It informed their voting. During this election, millions worried about Hispanic-Americans. They heard their concerns. It informed their voting. During this election, millions worried about black Americans. They heard their concerns. It informed their voting.

People like Fleming heard those same concerns and nevertheless stayed home. Did nonvoters worry about other people when they didn’t vote? We must consider this reprehensible, much like those white voters who heard those same concerns and replied, with their vote, “I don’t care.”

Some plunged a knife in these communities’ backs. Others did not act to prevent this dastardly deed. Either way, the knife remains, lodged painfully in these communities’ vertebrae, as they look on, wondering why their fellow citizens allowed their agony.

Some will counter that many voters of all races don’t vote, pointing to this country’s lackluster voter participation rates. It’s true. Too many — more than 40 percent of eligible voters in this year’s election — do not vote, a pathetically low participation rate for a developed country.

But right now, I’m a black man writing to mostly black people. Pointing out that the white man who is also an alcoholic cures no drinking issue of mine. We black people need to vote at higher rates, a necessary but not sufficient condition for black life, other nonwhite people (and I would argue white people, too), improving drastically. When we don’t vote for president, or Congress, or state legislator, or mayor, or county prosecutor, we must deem that behavior as worthy of social punishment.

By policing social norms, populations improve individual behavior. When a person violates a social norm — such as not voting — their peers should level condemnation, persuading them, but more importantly, persuading all onlookers, to avoid engaging in such socially irresponsible acts. This is one way we increase our voter participation and consequently our democratic influence.

Some will note, particularly pertaining to states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina, that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchised blacks, causing artificially low voting rates. Journalist Ari Melber revealed that as many as 300,000 Wisconsinites, for instance, could not vote in the 2016 election because they lacked proper identification. States generally passed these laws to reduce nonwhite voting.

Yes, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of black voters were disenfranchised across this land. This renders voting more crucial — the black voters who disenfranchised themselves betrayed their own interests and the interests of people counting on them, while offering no help to those whose ballots were stolen away. Their frustration with politicians, however understandable, provides no excuse. They held power to rid us of such racially discriminatory laws and relieve vulnerable people from constant fear of their own government. But they did nothing.

Those who didn’t vote failed to be their brother’s keeper and be responsible civic actors. They need to get it together. By calling them out publicly, I seek to help them do just that.

Do better.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.