African-Americans can’t afford not to vote, panelists at Madison College said on Thursday.
“Everything we do in life is shaped by politics. The chairs we’re sitting in, the food we eat, was shaped by politics, and somebody’s making those policy decisions,” said panelist Mahlon Mitchell, a Democratic candidate for governor.
But they, and anyone working for social change, also can’t afford to think politics begins and ends with elections, panelists said.
The panel, titled “Blacks’ Participation in the Political Process,” was hosted by the Black Student Union. The talk brought admonitions to show up at the polls and consider running for office. But the titular “political process” wasn’t confined to election day, and the conversation also covered holding politicians accountable, creating new pathways to success and the responsibilities of white communities.
The panel included Mitchell, Harold Rayford, a pastor at The Faith Place Church, former state representative and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Mandela Barnes, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, and Ali Muldrow, the director of youth programming and inclusion at GSAFE, an organization aiming to create inclusive school communities for LGBTQ youth.
All the panelists agreed: show up at the upcoming elections and vote, they told students.
“There are people that died for us, for me, to have the right to vote,” Mitchell said. “When we don’t vote, we essentially are giving away that power.”
But Barnes said that responsibility for poor turnout falls on the candidates. Candidates should ask themselves why their message didn’t convince voters their lives could be changed.
“A lot of people stayed home on Nov. 16. I get it, they didn’t see a reason to come out,” Barnes said.
Parisi added that voting is less accessible for some populations, citing what he called an assault on voting rights and a state law prohibiting felons to vote until they complete their supervision, which he called “one of the forms of Jim Crow.”
Political activism doesn't end after election day, Barnes said.
“A lot of times we vote, and that’s it,” he said. “It’s imperative for us, coming from communities that have been completely disenfranchised … to engage the people that we elected in office.”
Politicians can plead ignorance if communities don’t express their concerns, he said.
An audience member asked Barnes and Mitchell how they would support the African-American community if elected to office. Both talked about the need to reform Wisconsin’s mass incarceration system, and Barnes said the state needs to stop incarcerating non-violent offenders for low-level drug convictions. Mitchell spoke in support of “ban the box” legislation for employers and suggested bringing opportunities like business incubators to African-American communities.
Muldrow cautioned the audience about assuming that fighting racism and empowering marginalized communities is a partisan issue.
“If that was true, the problems we have right here, right now wouldn’t exist,” Muldrow said, pointing out that “liberal, progressive Madison mirrors any other community,” when it comes to racism and disparities.
That means no one is “off the hook” because of their party or label, Muldrow said. Everyone needs to act.
Parisi emphasized the need for white communities to partner in dismantling institutional racism. The first step in that partnership, he said, is listening to the affected communities. Muldrow agreed that white people need to be outraged about racism.
“It is easier to change our society from a position of power,” Muldrow said.
One audience member asked what students can do to “step into these political roles to make changes,” especially at a local level.
Rayford encouraged the audience to finish their education, saying that combined with their natural abilities, a degree “will help you not only knock on doors, but knock the wall down if they try to lock the door.”
Muldrow said that sometimes marginalized communities have to take back power by creating their own path. She compared applying for a job — where African-American applicants may be subject to discrimination in the hiring process — to starting a business.
“(We need to) stop asking for jobs, stop asking for a seat at a table where we’re not welcome, and create our own table,” Muldrow said.
Muldrow, who ran for the Madison School Board last year, and Mitchell and Barnes, were honest about the demands of campaigning. They talked about challenges that all prospective politicians face (“You’ve got to have a good sense of humor about how much free time you're going to have,” Muldrow said), as well as struggles specific to people of color.
“A lot of people ... will immediately doubt you,” said Barnes. “You do have to be on your game all the time.”
Barnes shared that he’s already spent a lot of time clarifying that he’s not a firefighter, as people confuse him with “the other black guy.” Mitchell is the president of Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin, the state’s union for firefighters.
Mitchell shared a recent story in Eau Claire where a man told him that Mitchell would be “the first black fella” he ever voted for.
“And then he whispered in my ear, ‘and the first Democrat,’” Mitchell said to audience laughter. “Why would you whisper Democrat and not whisper black?”
But if running for elected office isn’t your thing, Muldrow said, there are plenty of other ways to make a political impact. She reminded the audience that low-income African-American students are more likely to graduate high school if they have at least one African-American teacher in elementary school.
“Become a teacher, y’all, become a mentor,” Muldrow said. “Be what you needed as a kid.”