For the past year or more, all across America, the rallies have had the signs: Black Lives Matter. Many came after a white racist shot nine church-goers in Charleston last June in a crime so horrible it caused the Confederate Flag to come down from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina.
On Feb. 27 in the S.C. Democratic presidential primary, we hear from black voters – the people who have been forgotten too often, called “minority” and so many other words that are worse.
Blacks make up more than half of Democratic voters in South Carolina. In 2008 they helped propel Barack Obama to the nomination and eventual elections as America’s first black president. Blacks vote Democratic more than 95 percent. A coalition of Democratic whites and blacks is the only way to win South Carolina for a Democratic candidate.
How come we haven’t heard from more black people on the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Because the media asks each other, and pundits, and college professors, and rarely – if ever – ask blacks themselves.
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“Nobody has asked me,” said Chester businessman and community activist Michael Halsey.
In heavily black and Democratic Chester, just like cities such as Rock Hill and York and Lancaster, the numbers of black votes Saturday will help decide the direction of the country. But pundits and media ask college professors in bow ties and party officials about the black vote.
Halsey leads a civic club and has sponsored dozens of events over the years on black issues from education to gangs. Halsey has also led the effort for Chester and South Carolina to honor La’Darious Wylie, the 11-year-old black child who died in October saving his sister from a hit-and-run driver.
If the candidates asked Halsey, he would tell them blacks he knows – and in Chester he knows everybody – are split between Clinton and Sanders.
“I see all these places on television, on the radio, in the news where they say candidates are trying to get the black vote, but they don’t seem to be asking us what matters to us,” Halsey said.
In the Republican primary, there was so much talk about immigration, gun rights, abortion. The candidates rarely, if ever, mentioned the crises in education, jobs, housing, opportunity for blacks because the candidates were not seeking black votes. Republicans in South Carolina voted for six different candidates Saturday and their voice is just as important as any other voice, but those Republican voters had one thing universally in common – most of those voters were white.
In Iowa, New Hampshire, the voters were almost all white.
This week that changes.
South Carolina, and America, is not all white. It is white and black and increasingly brown.
“Injustice and the lives of African-Americans must be taken seriously and not for granted,” said Rev. Maurice Harden of Rock Hill’s New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church. “People ask me all the time about the election and whether injustices will be addressed and if candidates will offer real solutions. The conversation on race, and inequality, can be difficult for some – but it is a conversation we must have.”
Blacks face a different set of problems – high incarceration rates, police racial profiling and interaction with police that too often ends with bullets, high unemployment among young black men. The Affordable Care Act is not a political term for South Carolina’s blacks. It helped thousands find quality health care, say Harden and York’s Steve Love.
“This is the election that either propels us as African-Americans, or drop us back down to where we were before the election of President Obama,” said Love, a three-decades Democratic activist from York who is a state NAACP leader. “I would say this election is even more important than 2008 and 2012. But no one seems to be asking us as individuals which of these candidates is best for these issues that affect blacks every day. The loss of health care would be devastating if Republicans dismantle it.”
Yet Love, who is in touch with hundreds of voters, said that the attention has been on the candidates ability to reach blacks, but not the black voters themselves.
“Nobody speaks for us – we speak for ourselves,” Love said. “More, there is no single ‘black vote.’ People are individuals, and black people individually make up their minds.”
One might think that Rock Hill’s oldest black business, Robinson Funeral Home open for more than a century, would have people asking owners John Ramseur and his daughter Monique about who they support, or reaching people, or what matters. No, Monique Ramseur said.
“My 90-year-old grandmother votes, in our family we all vote – the feeling is if you don’t vote then don’t complain,” Ramseur said. “But what sounds good on TV or in the media coverage – people talking about us as blacks – isn’t really them asking us as blacks what we think or what matters to us.”
No one has asked Erica Simpson of Lancaster, who is one of the community’s leading black entrepreneurs, about the election. Simpson has a thriving real estate business that is creating jobs. She also owns two other businesses. She is a college graduate who has civic and philanthropic involvement, and like Halsey, she has a huge following on social media. Nobody has asked her about the election.
There were no candidates or surrogates at the meeting of bishops of the AME Zion Church this past week in Rock Hill at the denomination’s headquarters. In that building, attended by hundreds of black pastors and elders who have great influence in their communities because concerns about America are talked about at church, no national media, no candidates, no surrogates, no nothing.
Chelsea Clinton did do an event for her mother there weeks ago.
These are people who speak to tens of thousands of South Carolinians every Sunday and on other days. Their parishes are filled with loving black people who have endured segregation and injustice and inequality. Their sister denomination, the AME church, is home to the church in Charleston where nine people were killed just eight months ago, killings that shocked the world.
Thelma Gordon, pastor of Liberty Hill AME Zion in York, said that black people – socially conservative – are crucial to this election but there has been very little coverage of the lives of black people themselves.
“The people who go to our churches are the voters of this state,” Gordon said. “They matter.”
Maybe in the next week, as America looks at South Carolina not for mass murder or the Confederate Flag but in the election, people will ask them.