Hear Us: We Are Reclaiming Our Political Power in the Struggle for Progress

Op-ed: One year into the Biden-Harris Administration, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and low-wealth communities are taking political power back to push for progress in a nation often too stubborn to move (or listen).

A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” on the wall of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (Photo by J.G. Park / public domain)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hear Us” is a column series that features experts of color and their insights on issues related to the economy and racial justice. Follow us here and at #HearUs4Justice.

To say we find ourselves at yet another perilous moment in the history of this country is an understatement. With small-d democracy under siege, a climate crisis well underway, widespread poverty, racial discrimination, and rampant economic uncertainty — not to mention, we’re entering year three of a global pandemic — the Biden-Harris administration has its work cut out for itself.

January 20th marked one year since the president and vice president-elect took their oath of office and their administration officially took the reins of the country. This victory for the country, and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party, can be attributed to the organizing and political tenacity of Black and Brown communities across the country. Without the important work being done by members of these communities, none of this would have been possible.

“It would be different without me … what is it without me?” –Aubrey Graham

In the grand scheme of this beautiful and vastly complicated American experiment, it begs the question of what all this would be without Black people and other communities of color. We have always been the moral compass and witness bearers of the country, especially in its darkest hours. It grows increasingly hard to reconcile how we remain so resilient in the face of pervasive racism and the lack of urgency to address the needs of our communities. Still, our resolve to move this country forward remains.

The summer of 2020 marked a shift that has begun to culminate in the past year. Structurally marginalized and low-wealth communities—Black and Brown communities in particular—organized and hit the streets to take back their political power and push for progress across the country. And as anyone who is a student of history — or has eyes — can imagine, this shift in political power has not been welcomed with open arms.

In the immediate aftermath of one of the country’s most historic elections, with record turnout and the swearing-in of Vice President Kamala Harris, the [white] backlash took shape. Republican legislators in many states started their crusade to limit access to voting — slashing early voting, purging voter rolls, and closing polling sites.

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers in 49 states introduced nearly 440 bills to restrict voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. As of December 2021, 19 states had enacted 34 new laws that curtail voting. In virtually every case, these restrictions target specific groups of people to keep them away from the ballot box: Black voters, young people, low-wealth individuals, and voters of color more broadly. This is solely based on who organized and showed up in the previous election and which candidates they showed up for. There’s no sound rationale for limiting access to the ballot. It’s just the latest attempt to stifle the political and economic power of communities that stand the most to lose — and to gain.

Many have called on the White House to address this assault on democracy, but executive-branch action alone on voting rights has its limits. A few weeks ago the White House only held its second event solely dedicated to voting rights when the president and vice president traveled to Georgia to deliver the most impassioned speech thus far from this administration. They even went as far as calling for the Senate to take up rules reform immediately in order to circumvent Republican obstruction and the filibuster.

With narrow majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats have taken up two bills, in particular, to beat back these attempts to nullify the votes of historically marginalized groups:

  1. Freedom to Vote Act (S.2747): This transformational legislation, which stems from the For the People Act (H.R.1), passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, would create national standards for elections and voting processes. If passed, the bill would also protect the freedom to vote, remove big money from politics, combat partisan election subversion, and help ensure that congressional districts are drawn to give fair representation to all.

  2. John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R.4|S.4): This bill restores key provisions from the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, a historic law gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision in 2013. Following that decision, several states passed sweeping voter suppression laws. Restoring the Voting Rights Act gives the federal government the necessary tools (such as pre-clearance) needed to address discriminatory voting practices.

Elections are never about a single issue, and our communities know what’s at stake. When these sweeping actions take place across the country, they are not intended just to shut certain groups of people out of the democratic process—it’s to render them valueless to society. If they can stamp out the voices of marginalized communities, then they do not have to be accountable to them. The organizing happening across the country, around issues of labor, housing, and racial, political, and economic justice, is not just happenstance. The masses are saying clearly, enough is enough.

The 2022 midterm elections are around the corner and the specter of the 2024 presidential election looms. The urgency to safeguard free and fair elections has never been more consequential. Once again, the stone that the builders refused is here to save the day. Fortunately and unfortunately, our posterity depends on it.

“America–land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages” –Yasiin Bey

So, where are we going? And this is not just a subtle way to include a Marvin Gaye reference — this is the existential question we have to continue to ask ourselves. In this season of America, our work and our organizing should be centered around enshrining the rights and needs of systemically marginalized communities at the federal, state, and local levels. Economic rights and foundational needs that we have long been promised but have not been guaranteed.

Guaranteed housing, income and wealth, jobs, debt-free college, health care — these things and more can be achieved by our intentional shifting and reshaping of political dynamics. Given the chance, the most impacted communities would not only elect officials who would proudly represent them and their interests but hold those officials accountable as well.

Our fight for racial, economic, political, and climate justice must be unyielding. We can ill afford to be disillusioned by elected officials and their doublespeak — the ones who talk a good game when they want our votes, but do little to nothing to serve the people when they take their oath of office.

This is what we at Liberation in a Generation Action are fighting to change. We need elected officials at the city, state, and federal levels who are committed to creating an economy we’ve never before seen — one built by and for communities of color, and one that is free of exclusion, exploitation, and extraction.

Much like those before us, we have to continue to struggle — for each other, with each other, and against all enemies of progress. Without a radical redistribution of political and economic power, the true progress and liberation that we strive for can never be realized.

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Taofik Oladipo, Jr. is the political and policy manager at Liberation in a Generation.

Tags: racial justicehear usvoting rightsvoting access

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