No matter how this election plays out, let’s at least do away with oversimplified narratives about what Black people think of electoral politics
I grew up revering Pierre Elliott Trudeau even before I really knew who he was.
This bizarre (and mildly embarrassing) coming-of-age circumstance, which lasted well into my teens, was the result of a fair amount of brainwashing at home. There, PET was lauded as a debonair Moses-like hero who benevolently opened the Great White North to people of colour from all over the world – and in particular, the Caribbean, from whence my kith and kin came. That he was Liberal scarcely mattered.
He could have been a Communist (some say he was) or an anarchist. What’s important is that he was perceived by my family as a generous and welcoming leader who gave my aunt, mother, uncles and cousins a chance for self-advancement in Canada. At least, this was the simple narrative I was led to believe.
I suppose I became a voter because of this ridiculously simple story, whose underlying moral went something like this: you vote for the candidate who promises to improve your family’s lot – and you ignore everybody else.
This was the basic idea of electoral politics that I carried into my adult years, and I assumed most, if not all other Black people, behaved the same way.
So here we are in the 2019 election, where we find PET’s son, Justin, exposed for Blackface shenanigans.
The feigned shock and horror of the white mainstream media has once again led to that critical but perplexing question: how will Black people vote – and what exactly do Black people think of electoral politics?
Do we hold on to a simple narrative of immigration and acceptance? Are we disengaged? Are we entirely cynical about so-called progressive candidates? Are we committed leftists? Are we comfortably numb?
We do know that turnout among people of colour has more or less plummeted over the past few decades. We also know that young people, particularly those who were born outside of Canada, are running away from the polls. One study suggests that a lack of trust in political parties, outsized media influence and various socio-economic factors also contribute to low voter turnout among the young.
The fact is, people of colour are all over the map. Surprise! There is no monolithic bucket that we can all be thrown into. There is no cozy corner of the political spectrum where we can all be neatly situated.
Truth. We are as perturbed, bored, angry, befuddled, stupefied, engaged, anxious, turned off and turned on about this election as everybody else. And that’s a good thing.
YOUNG, ENTREPRENEURIAL AND DISAFFECTED
Marcus Hamilton, is a Black, 27-year-old university graduate who lives in a rented one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto.
Entrepreneurial, motivated and energetic, he started his own upholstery business when he realized his art and design degree wasn’t going to produce employment dividends right away. Hamilton is no political slouch. He keeps himself apprised of the issues. Like other millennials, he’s particularly concerned about the economy and affordable housing. An avid runner and user of public spaces, he’s worried city planners have dropped the ball when it comes to designing sustainable and livable communities.
Hamilton has ideas about improving the city he loves and doesn’t hesitate to share them. But he’s never voted and has no intention of doing so.
“I’m pretty indifferent to the outcome of elections,” says Hamilton. “The non-stop bickering and polarization hides the fact that the candidates are actually quite similar.”
Hamilton says he’s not alone in feeling disengaged. Most of his friends who are racialized, well-educated and employed – feel the same way. “It ranges from utter disinterest to anger,” says Hamilton. “There’s definitely a sense of alienation from the political sphere.”
What would it take for him to change his mind?
“Maybe I’d vote for someone who I thought had real ideas and a vision, someone with sensitivity to how the past, present and future are interconnected.”
Hamilton’s desire for connection is widespread. While there is some data in Canada about Black voter engagement, it’s clear that people of colour respond most when there is a personal touch.
“The greatest predictor of racialized groups turning out to vote is their sense of connection to those involved,” confirms Dennis Pilon, associate professor in the department of politics at York University. “They are far more likely to vote if someone they know encourages them to do so right before the election, or if they identify with the candidate in some way.”
What about political parties? Are they a factor?
Pilon says party allegiance among racialized groups is not as strong as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
“There was a time when certain parties could count on support from particular ethnic groups, but that’s not always the case now,” says Pilon.
Research shows that young, working-class people tend to stay away from polls in significant numbers. Pilon says this is one of the most worrying and overlooked trends in our voting system.
“We lose sight of how income, age, class, education and other factors impact voting when we focus solely on race.”
ENGAGING THE BLACK VOTE
Velma Morgan has made getting Black people involved in the political process a major part of her life’s work.
As chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, a multi-partisan, non-profit organization focused on “educating, motivating and advocating for Black Canadians to participate in Canada’s government,” Morgan is not overly concerned with which political party Black people support, so long as they are at the policy table.
She doesn’t accept that Black people aren’t interested in electoral politics. Morgan points to the increased number of racialized candidates in the current federal election. She says political apathy within Black communities can be overcome with the right kind of outreach. “We need to think about how we’re engaging our people,” says Morgan. “We need to come up with more accessible formats and approaches to engagement.”
ORGANIZING BETWEEN ELECTIONS
Whether Black people find themselves on the right or the left of the political spectrum, the intersection of class and race continues to be a significant factor regarding who votes and who doesn’t.
York-South Weston NDP candidate Yafet Tewelde is reminded of this often. Tewelde says he’s concerned whenever he hears people voice support for candidates solely on the basis of race.
“I understand the need for representation, but we need representation that leads to greater levels of employment, housing, education, immigration and political and social advancement.”
Tewelde says elections and voting matters in Black communities, but genuine engagement happens after the polls are closed. “That’s when you bring people in and try to understand why they are cynical.”
No matter how this election plays out, let us at least do away with oversimplified narratives about why people choose to vote (or not vote).