My paternal grandmother, Ida Mingo, left Mississippi and fled north as a young woman in the 1920s to escape the Jim Crow violence and oppression that kept black people from voting and made us second-class citizens.
As a political science professor at Columbia University, I drew on that family history. I wanted to help students learn that the struggle against the racist structures that prevented—and still prevent—Black people from voting is fundamental to the question of who we are as a people. Voting is not merely one right among many, an act reducible to pulling a lever. It is an identity that is a marker of full citizenship. This is why years later, my organization calls on people not merely to vote but to be voters.
For Black Americans, who have faced generations of authoritarian rule under Jim Crow regimes, the right to vote is central to how we see our place in this democracy and whether we are equal members in this society. To paraphrase the voting rights champion Lani Guinier, Black voters are the “miner’s canary” of our entire system of democracy.
Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t registering people in Mississippi to vote—she was fighting to end the unfair literacy tests and the violent obstruction that kept black people from being voters. Hamer’s—and countless other grassroots organizers whose names we don’t know—accomplishment was immeasurable. In fact, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act signaled a sea change in black participation in democracy. Turnout among blacks in once-Confederate states in the late 1950s was some 50 percentage points lower than whites. In the years since, Black turnout has exceeded white turnout in those states in four presidential elections. Black democratic participation led to substantive governance outcomes: more economic gains and material well-being for all.
But, as always in the wake of this country’s racist past, we move two steps forward and one back. Today, similar obstacles are aimed at suppressing the vote of Black—and Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous—voters.
This time, the brigade to suppress voters of color is coming from the president, the GOP, and their right-wing accomplices. Trump openly disparages vote by mail ballots and urges his supporters to intimidate poll watchers and voters at polling stations, efforts aimed at corrupting the election process. As poll after poll shows Trump losing by wide margins, the GOP is trying to subvert the election by making it hardest to vote for the people they know are most likely to cast a ballot the other way.
Consider the case of Michigan, where right-wing provocateurs were arrested for allegedly calling Black Detroit voters and spreading misinformation to keep them from voting. And Georgia and Florida, where voters in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods have waited hours in line because state elections officials won’t provide enough polling places.
Time and again, we see the GOP work to suppress the votes of Black Americans and other people of color, undermining the core of our democracy: the right to participate in our political process. This has been an essential feature, not a bug, of our voting system from the founding. For over 200 years, elites have always feared majority rule that comes with electoral democracy.
Social science research firm Olson Zaltman found in surveys this election cycle that voting is an intellectual exercise for white voters, but that for Black and Latinx voters, casting a ballot is about their lived experience. Research in this area has long shown that asking a person to be a voter is more effective in convincing them to participate than just asking them to vote. The distinction is no technicality; it’s the difference between voting as character, aspiration, and responsibility, versus a mere chore of adulthood.
As a college professor, I taught my students about the first Reconstruction, a period right after the Civil War when the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote. (Black women, and yes, all women wouldn’t be able to vote for another 50 years.) But Southern whites resentful of the economic and political rise of formerly enslaved people passed Jim Crow laws to keep Black Americans as second-class citizens. Sound familiar?
Fast forward to the Obama era, followed by the white resentment and backlash of Trumpism. Southern Redemption, 21st-century style. Two steps forward, one step back. The difference this time is far-reaching movements led by Black Americans, Latinx people, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and other people who have been marginalized are claiming their right to participate.
We remember the historic Women’s March after Trump’s election, followed by demonstrators at airports across America to protest the Muslim ban. Later, the immigrant rights movement sparked more nationwide protests to Trump’s family separation policies.
These movements opened the way to the 2018 wave when voters swept the GOP out of power in the US House of Representatives and ushered in the most diverse—and progressive—group of Congress members ever.
This summer, a core call to action in the nationwide racial justice protests has been to be a voter for Black and brown lives.
Now, in a twist to the quest for full citizenship, we need to not just be voters but also make sure every vote is counted. The president refuses to commit to abiding by the results of the election. That means we must stand up and be voters in more ways than casting a ballot—we must make our voices heard with our friends and neighbors, on social media, and if necessary, in the streets.
We’ve done it before, and we will do it again this election season, whether we vote by mail or in person. It is the only way to deliver our democracy and realize the promise that we are all equal participants.
I am a black man whose grandparents fled the South so they can live free. I am also a new father filled with a sense of the fragility of our progress. I’m a voter, and I vote to defend our democracy for my past and future.