The Ballot Won’t Beat It: Race, Democracy, and Coronavirus in America

Coronavirus in Black America

Njera Keith is a Black organizer whose focus is the development of movement infrastructure that supports cohesion in revolutionary struggle. She is the Founder and former Executive Director of Black Sovereign Nation. She is also the Co-Founder of 400+1, a Black cooperative federation, liberatory blueprint, and framework for dramatic economic and political shifts in global, Black life. 

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The disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus on Black communities comes as no surprise. As the Center for Disease Control publishes statistics that indicate that 45% of U.S. patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are of African descent, the Diaspora will simply add the pandemic to the egregiously long list of perils that people of color are more susceptible to as a result of systemic racism. Recently released state-specific data is even more striking than the national averages. John Bel Edwards, the governor of Louisiana, reported that, although Black folx make up only 32% percent of the state’s population, 70% of COVID-19 mortalities have been Black. In Cook County, Illinois the numbers are similarly unnerving, with a Black population of 23% and a coronavirus mortality rate among the county’s Black residents double that. 

These numbers are consistent with the perpetual reality of Black public health in America and the compromised nature of Black wellness at birth. Systemic barriers such as unaffordable and culturally inaccessible health care, food insecurity and malnutrition, homelessnes, chronic stress, and other forms of state sanctioned violence are root causes of the medical vulnerability experienced by Black Americans. Of those responsible for Black COVID casualties, the most temporally relevant cause is representative democracy in the United States. 

In 1619, the introduction of representative government in the form of general assembly and the forced migration of abducted Africans amalgamated to shape the American political apparatus as we know it today. From the beginning, representative democracy was about protecting white, hoarded, Black built wealth. White male property owners were the sole demographic represented at assembly and their political status was quickly bolstered by their ownership of Black people kidnapped from West Africa. Later, when the Constitution was written, it was with the incentivization and protection of slavery in mind. Pro-slavery sentiment is at the heart of the Constitution’s apportionment clause, which dictated that each state’s allotment of representatives in the House would be determined by its number of free men and “three fifths persons”; the latter being a euphemism for Black people in bondage. 

The disproportionate power dynamic established in the House of Representatives and in favor of the slaveholding south is also reflected, contemporarily, in the conservative stronghold on the electoral college; an institution designed to undergird the marginalization of Black people. The electoral college was the framers’ alternative to a directly democratic process in presidential elections, a process that would have been disadvantageous to slave owners. By the 18th century, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had garnered significant critisism and resistance. Abolitionist rhetoric was prominent in the North and southern delegates were unwilling to risk their profits to preserve the parameters of a pure democracy. Ultimately, the south was granted additional representation through the formation of the electoral college so as not to be outvoted on the issue of slavery in popular presidential elections. 

As the seeds of the American political system sprouted, it was apparent that the inequities engrained in its foundational doctrine would impact Black and Indigenous quality of life. The early prioritization of racial capitalism and its political underpinnings often resulted in the compromised health of disenfranchised populations. In addition to the obvious public health crises at the heart of the genocide faced by Indigenous people and the generationally-transcendant implications of the devastatingly brutal nature of chattel slavery, the spread of smallpox, scarlet fever, and other diseases by white Americans to Black and native people were a serious health implication of American-style democracy. It goes without saying that, during these outbreaks, medicinal resources were reserved for those valued by wealthy, white society. 

Infectious diseases destroyed 18th and 19th century communities because Europeans chose profit over people. During these early American epidemics, Black people did not fare well against their white counterparts during triage. Similarly, as COVID-19 runs rampant throughout the country, because of the government’s decision to prioritize economic stabilization, Americans will continue to witness the institutional racism woven throughout the healthcare system in ways reminiscent of America’s nascent experience with widespread infection, as those with pre-existing conditions are judged more likely to die and less deserving of hospital resources. Public health in the United States has never been prioritized over white wealth and people of color have always carried the bulk of the burden imposed by those decisions. 

In the latest installment of the epic saga of positive correlation between Black disenfranchisement and Black death, and with probably the worst timing ever, Bernie Sanders, the fiercest champion of medicare for all in this year’s presidential election, has suspended his campaign. As echoes of despondency, anger, and exasperation ring out among the political left, a dose of sobriety seems the best antidote for the popular, yet ahistorical belief that a Sanders administration would have solved America’s health care issue and eradicated many of the socio-political factors contributing to coronavirus’s impact on marginalized communities. Many saw Bernie Sanders as the country’s rare shot at political transformation, even calling him the face of “political revolution.” But the truth is that, just as was often said of the Vermont Senator himself, the solutions to the issues brought to the surface by coronavirus are not electable. 

One indication of Bernie Sanders’ inability to usher in an actual political revolution is his campaign’s attempt at reconciling revolutionary rhetoric with the decision to run as a Democrat. Though he claimed to be interested in dismantling politically elitist institutions, he ultimately invested in one of the largest by abandoning his status as an independent and joining the ranks of super PAC Democrats. Truthfully, there was little choice, given the binary nature of our current political system; which suggests that Sanders’ candidacy was not shifting the foundation of American Democracy, but rather finding and occupying its most progressive crevices. Even more contradictory to the narrative that frames Bernie as a catalyst for political revolution is evidence of his vote to extradite Assata Shakur, an actual Black revolutionary who sought refuge in Cuba after the American government both failed to protect her from and punished her for her resistance to state sanctioned violence. A true political revolution would entail atonement for America’s fascist past, not a doubling down on ultranationalist proclivities. 

While it’s true that not all of Sanders’ supporters fancy themselves revolutionaries, even those who feel more comfortable with fundamental progressivism can’t deny that he left much to be desired. His foreign policy record was disappointingly inconsistent with his anti-war message. Bernie pursued weapons contracts from the Department of Defense in the 80s, cosigned Clinton’s Kosovo air strikes in 1999, recently brought nuclear capable fighter jets to his home state in an effort to boost the economy, and has engaged in mildly zionist rhetoric throughout his political career. Sanders struggles on race as well, standing accused of class reductionism, declining to support government issued reparations, and failing to acknowledge attempts made by Black organizers to move him further left. While universal access to health care and free college education are in alignment with Black interests, those initiatives alone would not eliminate marginalization on the basis of race, a fact with which Bernie struggles to reckon. 

That considered, there are still those for whom Bernie’s record does not disqualify him from the chance to embody his proclaimed values as President of the United States. Unfortunately, even as one looks past Senator Sanders’ flaws, it’s unclear how, inheriting the government as is, he could have realized his dream for nationalized health care. Sanders has had little congressional support throughout his career. For his Medicare for All bill, specifically, he has exactly 14 co-sponsors; less than a third of the votes typically needed to pass major legislation. The plan will not go without vitriolic resistance, as it proposes that undocumented Americans have universal health care access and that abortion be included in coverage. If centrist Barack Obama couldn’t push the Affordable Care Act through Congress without the devastating gutting it endured, how realistic was the hope that Bernie Sanders would build a coalition motivated and empowered enough to implement his platform? 

In an alternate America in which a popular vote, via referendum or initiative, enacts legislation, Bernie Sanders’ vision could be actualized. In this reality; however, where the popular vote, when utilized is overruled by the political elite, and where so-called progressives must engage in bi-partisan coalition building to pass legislation, Sanders’ promises would have gone unfulfilled. In fact, historical precedent doesn’t favor Sanders as the winner of the general election, if even he managed to clinch the Democratic nomination and win the popular vote. 

Lest we forget, it was through the electoral college that both George W. Bush and Donald Trump were elected to the presidency. Neither administration was the choice of the American people, as the popular vote in the elections that produced them went to Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, respectively. Both times, slavery’s residual influence on America’s political apparatus generated presidents that signed thousands of Black death certificates; Bush during Hurrican Katrina in 2005 and Trump during the COVID-19 outbreak this year. 

Beyond the inequitable nature of the electoral college, is the unfortunate reality that Black people find themselves in, as a racial minority in America. Historically, white America, wealthy America, and even the middle class America that African Americans aspire to haven’t voted in solidarity with Black interests. Democratic primaries have shown us time and time again that the popular vote won’t save Black people in the U.S. from disenfranchisement, marginalization, or even from death, as the majority consistently elect candidates that disregard Black citizens. After all, it was Bill Clinton, a liberal darling, who signed the 1994 Crime Bill that devastated Black communities and expedited mass incarceration. It was Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and the inspiration for record breaking voter mobilization in 2008 who claimed that reparations are “untenable”, politically. Obama failed to implement any policy specifically designed to combat Black oppression and his analysis of the state of Black America was as harmful as that of his white liberal peers, often leaning into respectability politics and outdated stereotypes. And now, Joe Biden, is the Democratic frontrunner; Joe Biden, who has lied about participating in civil rights activism, Joe Biden, who once expressed that Jesse Jackson would be too radical a running mate and did not reflect the future he envisioned for the Democratic party, Joe Biden, who was George W. Bush’s partner in garnering support for the Iraq War, Joe Biden who racialized poverty when he said that “poor kids are just as bright as white kids.” Electoral college or none, the presidential ballot is unlikely to produce radical results for those most impacted by America’s inequities. 

Still, some would argue that the nation’s executive branch isn’t the one that matters most. There is a strong grassroots emphasis on local and state-wide races, with organizing efforts resulting in the election of liberal and progressive public officials in cities and congressional districts across the nation. One such city is Dallas, Texas. Grassroots collectives like the Texas Organizing 

Project were deeply invested in electoral justice organizing in 2018, endorsing candidates like Victoria Neave, Clay Jenkins, Terry Meza, and Julie Johnson in Dallas County. Neave, Meza Johnson, and Jenkins were successfully elected to H.D. 107, H.D. 105, H.D. 115, and Dallas Commissioners Court, respectively. Still, Dallas’s government, amid the COVID-19 outbreak and with the second largest number of infected people in Texas, was one of the slowest cities in the state to take measures to slow the spread of the virus. Adding insult to injury, a Dallas court recently decided to halt the city’s roll out of paid sick leave, leaving the city’s residents without support as businesses close their doors. Black and Brown residents of Dallas are among those most infected with coronavirus and, though the data is still incomplete, it indicates that the Black mortality rate will be among the highest. So far, the electoral investment in progressivism among Dallas’s local political leadership has not protected the city’s residents from the worst of the public health crisis it’s experiencing. 

The novel coronavirus is providing Black Americans, especially, an opportunity to interrogate the American political system and, more specifically, its electoral process. As history repeats itself, it’s time to chart the transformation of this country’s infrastructure so that it is better equipped to meet the needs of all who reside within its borders. It was not through the electorate that Haiti overthrew its oppressors in 1804. It was not through the electorate that the Bolsheviks triumphed in 1917. It was not through the electorate that Cuba had its revolution in 1959. All on our own, and without the cooperation of the state, Americans can forge a new path; one with direct democracy and the nationalization of our basic, human needs on the horizon. As Joe Biden becomes the sole leftist option on the impending presidential ballot and another four years of Donald Trump seems imminent, isn’t it time we reclaimed our health, our land, and the economy we built? Isn’t it time we reject the framing scribed with our blood in 1619, in 1776, and in 1788? Come November, after countless Black lives have been claimed by COVID-19, will we finally refuse to accept the lesser of two evils?