How the Black Vote Became a Monolith

By Theodore R. Johnson

In the autumn of 2008, just a few weeks after my 33rd birthday, I cast a ballot for the first time. Up to that point, serving in the military seemed like more than sufficient civic engagement and provided a ready excuse for voluntarily opting out of several elections. By the time Barack Obama won the Democratic primary, I was an officer who’d spent more than a decade in the Navy and not a second in a voting booth. This apathy does not run in the blood. My parents are products of the civil rights era and the Jim Crow South, and as such religiously exercised their hard-won right to vote. In my formative years, the basic disposition of the house politics pressed together progressive demands for racial equality with the Black conservatism of marathon church services that stretched deep into Southern Sunday afternoons. We differed in degree on any number of issues, but elections were where our politics really diverged. Like much of Black America, my mother is a lifelong Democrat, staying true even as the party vacillated in and out of her good graces. My father is a somewhat perfunctory Republican, an heirloom affiliation inherited from Black Americans’ early-20th-century preference for the party of Lincoln and consecrated in the familial name carried by my grandfather, father and me: Theodore Roosevelt Johnson.

But in November 2008, all three of us checked the box for Obama, our votes helping deliver North Carolina to a Democratic presidential nominee for only the second time in 40 years. My father had crossed party lines once before, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president. Jackson’s business-size Afro, jet black mustache and Carolina preacher’s staccato cadence transformed the typically all-white affair of presidential contests. “If a Black man had the opportunity to sit in the Oval Office,” my father told me years later, “I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.”

Jackson championed a policy agenda nowhere close to my father’s conservatism. But his rationale for supporting Jackson hinged on a basic proposition, informed by generations of Black experience in America: The thousands of lesser decisions made in rooms of power can matter far more for racial equality than campaign promises and platforms. Senator Kamala Harris crisply captured this sentiment while campaigning last year, declaring a simple truth: “It matters who’s in those rooms.” My rationale for voting for the first time was much like my father’s two decades earlier. I was not going to stand idly by if there was a chance to put a Black man in those rooms.

This broken thing. Where do we go from here as people? #weareone

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    10 months ago

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