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Beyond the Ballot: Young Black Men and Voting

WireTap, News Report , Donny Lumpkins Posted: Sep 09, 2008

Editor's Note: The 15th Amendment might have given Black men the right to vote in America, but barriers to civic engagement abound. YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia content producer and Rock the Vote/Rock the Trail reporter Donny Lumpkins asks what people are doing outside of voter registration drives to address this issue. This piece was originally published in WireTap, a national news and culture magazine by and for socially conscious youth.

Most grassroots organizers are as dedicated to their work as their offices are messy. For Rose Braz, the case is no different. As campaign director for Critical Resistance, she's part of a national network of grassroots organizers, community members, academics and former prisoners whose mission is as straightforward as it is challenging: to abolish prisons. Her Oakland office is filled with boxes, pamphlets and fliers. During this busy presidential campaign season, hers is one of the few national organizations not organizing directly to get out the vote.

"One in 100 adults are in jail in the United States," she says. "For young black men between the ages of 20 and 34, that number is one in nine, and we're surprised that people don't want to vote?"

Critical Resistance views prisons as merely one part of the equation. The group's focus is on dismantling what advocates often refer to as the prison-industrial complex -- namely, private businesses such as security firms and construction companies that profit from warehousing millions of people with little hope for rehabilitation.

"People are a little defeated," she says. "The way the prison system is set up, you don't have to be behind bars to feel disenfranchised."

Despite record numbers of young and new voters in this historical presidential election, voter disenfranchisement remains an issue for many young black men.

New Voters, Old Barriers

After the Civil War, Congress passed three important pieces of legislation known as the Reconstruction Amendments. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery, the 14th secured the constitutional rights of former slaves and the 15th gave black men the right to vote. Together, these acts helped form the crux of black political participation in America.

President Davies is a direct descendant of this legacy of political aspiration and involvement. The 22-year-old Richmond, California native was born to a mother with lupus, and doctors expected him to suffer from severe mental and physical handicaps. To combat such harsh expectations, his parents chose a powerful name for their newborn son. "There was no name that signified honor and respect more than 'President'," he says.

Now healthy, he's ready to finish his associate degree at Laney College in Oakland, and transfer to Howard University in the fall. Davies bears witness to the stark contrast in voting among his peers.

"Very few of my friends vote," he says. "The ones who do are in college, and the rest who aren't in school are busy trying to find jobs."

Davies' observation is consistent with national data that suggests a huge class divide within black civic engagement. In 2004, 47 percent of black youth turned out to vote, the highest level in the past 30 years and only 2.5 percentage points fewer than white voters. Yet black college students vote at much higher rates than youth without any college experience.

Davies notes that a lack of time and a surplus of apathy don't explain his friends voting behavior.

"A lot of people feel disenfranchised," he said. "If you don't feel connected to the society, why vote?"

When asked if politicians address the issues he and his community face every day, Davies says that most of their challenges are under-represented. For instance, employment, while talked about on a grand scale, isn't often discussed in the more concrete context of who gets jobs and who is left out.

"There definitely aren't enough jobs, and when they do exist, they don't go to the people in the neighborhood I live in."

Still Not Free

Eric Phillips legally can't vote. The 27-year-old black man was charged with a felony when he was younger and has since been stripped of his right to vote.

Phillips is one of many black men who couldn't vote even if they wanted to. More than 60 percent of prisoners in the US are ethnic minorities. For black males in their twenties, statistics show that roughly one in nine is incarcerated.

According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization that examines felony disenfranchisement, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions. That leaves 13 percent of black men unable to vote.

"You don't feel like a part of society. You actually feel like an outlaw, like somebody who has been left behind. You did your time, you paid your dues and yet you are still punished," said Phillips.

He grew up in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point, a notoriously tough neighborhood. His childhood was made even more difficult after both of his parents were sent to prison. Left to provide for his sisters any way he could, he got into trouble with the law at an early age.

"You realize it's hard to get a job. You can't vote because you have a record, you can't go certain places. Your life is stripped from you. It doesn't stop [when you] get out of jail. You don't have a lot of freedom you should have."

Eric now works with The Beat Within, a magazine that helps amplify the creative voices of incarcerated youth.

Survival Mode

Brother Saleem Shakir, associate director of the African-American youth development agency Leadership Excellence, works about a block from Critical Resistance. He's one of many young black men working to address systemic issues in his community outside of the more conventional definitions of civic engagement.

With 19 years in the game, Leadership Excellence is a major part of the lives of many young black youth in and around Oakland. Its signature program, Camp Akili, focuses on violence, critical thinking, building self-esteem and self-determination. This approach is coupled with identifying internalized depression in African and African-American youth and addressing it in a positive way with workshops and training programs.

Shakir is the grandson of Carter Gilmore, the first black man elected to the Oakland City Council. A self-proclaimed native resident and homeowner in Oakland, Shakir says he chooses to vote out of respect for his ancestors' sacrifice.

"Growing up in East Oakland, I was trying to wear my Chuck Taylors and sport my red rag. I wasn't really tripping on voting," he said of his younger years. "Voting became important between [the] ages of 18 and 21 when I was doing my own level of research around African and African-American history. I saw the struggle we went through as a people to get the right to vote, so I started voting."

The question of how to get more working-class black men involved in the political process remains important. For Shakir, voting is a necessary component of justice.

"We, as a people, want power," he says. "The way the system is set up, the power is in the political process."

Yet that path toward justice is neither direct nor easy. More than a century after the Reconstruction Amendments were passed, granting them the right to vote, many black men are still focused on basic living.

"Voting is something you do when you're beyond survival mode," says Shakir. "You don't vote when you're in survival mode. And we have been conditioned in this country to stay in survival mode."

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