By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
The National Urban League’s 43rd annual State of Black America postponed its highly-anticipated Inequality Index and focused on voter suppression and threats to Black voting rights, particularly Russian interference and influence in the high stakes 2016 presidential election.
Each year, leading figures in politics, business, education, and popular culture assess Black progress or decline in economics, employment, education, health, housing, criminal justice and civic participation, but not State of Black America 2019, themed “Getting 2 Equal: United Not Divided.”
“We knew about voter ID laws. We knew about a hostile Supreme Court. We can fight these things and we knew about them, but we did not know about this effort at psychological manipulation,” stated Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
He said it was not hard to forego the Inequality Index this year, because each year it moves very little, so doing it every other year will still capture any change for the good and bad. In addition, no one has spoken about Russian interference and race in the elections, and the feeling is they could strike again in 2020, he said.
“If you do not have the right to vote, you can’t affect economic policy, housing policy, education policy, and policy with respect to children and healthcare. If we don’t have the right to vote, we don’t have people at the table to advocate, so that’s why voting is critical, crucial. In this system, the way the democratic system is set up, decisions are made by elected officials,” Mr. Morial told The Final Call.
According to the report, the Black voting rate matched or exceeded the White rate for the first time in American history in 2008, when the first Black President Barack Obama was elected. That just opened the floodgates for states across the country to escalate the battle to suppress votes, by passing voter ID laws, poll closing laws, restrictions on voter registration, and a whole range of things, said Mr. Morial.
“And then you add the Russians! And I don’t think people really focused on this until we showed them this report. Their whole intent for getting involved in the 2016 election was to suppress the Black vote. That’s what they were out to do. They wanted to suppress the Black vote. They wanted to confuse Black voters, so they ran a very, very extensive campaign for almost two years,” he stated.
According to the National Urban League, in partnership with The Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and detailed research provided by the Brennan Center for Justice, Russian internet trolls (social media instigators or disruptors) targeted Blacks with precision on social media platforms. A Senate investigation found that before, during and after the 2016 presidential election, Russia’s St. Petersburg-based troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, used social media to distract and divide American voters, demobilize the electorate and depress the vote, indicated the report.
It continued that on February 16, 2018, a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, saying they violated U.S. criminal laws to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes.
“It’s far beyond anything you would imagine, in terms of what they were doing. I mean, this is not two guys in a garage. This was an extensive, extensive effort. They reached 73 million people on Facebook. … They created nine phony news organizations. … They created fake Black Lives Matter activists,” stated Mr. Morial.
In addition, he said, fake activists put messages out, telling Blacks don’t vote; politicians are sell-outs, and it’s a waste of time. He said they put out memes–photos or other images, sometimes funny–used to spread messages on the Internet. They used such banners as “African Americans for Hillary Clinton” and told people to vote from home by texting a number. And, he said, the operatives were trying to inflame far right voters. “They had a Blue Lives Matter page. They had an anti-immigrant page, so they were playing the race card from every single angle,” he said.
State of Black America 2019 authors also explored the potential impact of proposed legislation that would expand access to the ballot box, reducing the influence of big money in politics and strengthen ethics rules, and, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, designed to restore key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
While it lacks the actual Inequality Index, co-authors still tackled a range of problems facing Blacks. Some contributors wrote stories around voter engagement, solutions, and the 2020 vote.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president and CEO, Hip Hop Caucus, wrote “Where My Voters At?: Meeting Young Voters at the Intersection of Adversity and Action.”
“This was a unique article. We’ve done a lot of work,” said Rev. Yearwood. The core of the message was the different ways people worked to disenfranchise the community, and voter access for returning citizens and ex-offenders, he told The Final Call.
“We fought too hard to make sure that our voice be heard, so we definitely are not going to let nobody take it away now,” said Rev. Yearwood. Different people view the number one problem Blacks need to deal with aside from protecting the vote differently, he admitted.
“Obviously, people of color and Black people have lived in different places and may see that differently, even from an institutional standpoint … I view that lens through the Hip Hop community and through the culture,” Rev. Yearwood said.
Part of the problem is violence and what it strips, such as the loss of rapper, entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle in Los Angeles and along with him the economic and educational advancements he’d begun setting up in his own community, Rev. Yearwood said.
Others are wealth creation and the issues of pollution and environmental justice, he said.
“Coming off Hurricane Maria, what we saw in Harvey and what we saw in Flint, what we see with lead poisoning in our community, there’s much more emphasis. What we saw from Standing Rock with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, I think there’s an emphasis on how we deal with that,” he said.
Frequently the issues of violence, criminal justice and economic health and wealth, environmental justice and concerns about pollution are voiced by youth and the Hip Hop community he works with every day.
“I guess it makes sense, coming up before a presidential election, how much it is focused on voting. I think it has some good, informed advice on what we need to do to make voting more accessible and more inclusive of all people, so those things I think are positive,” said Dedrick Muhammad, Bridging the Divide Coordinator at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank.
However, as his focus is on racial economic inequality, he was little disappointed that there wasn’t a major focus on the status of Blacks economically, particularly during a time of a reportedly booming economy, he said.
In his opinion, the whole idea of Russian interference in the election is not the primary challenge for Blacks’ engagement in the political process. He understands talking a little bit about it, but said there are much broader, larger issues at stake.
“They have some of the policy pieces, but I also think that as in the last election, having all-White tickets is not something that wreaks of being inclusive at the presidential level,” said Mr. Muhammad.
What has been good are Democratic candidates taking a more public stance around reparations, he said.
“I think all of that is a very positive thing and I think that’s the type of thing we should be pushing forward. As in the past, there has been some type of conversations around the Black agenda and that kind of got really dismantled, sadly enough, when President Obama was in office,” he said.