The erosion of black political power didn't start with Seth Williams
In a surprise announcement that will surely reverberate through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system in the coming months, Seth Williams, the first black District Attorney in the state of Pennsylvania, said Friday that he would not seek a third term in office.
This, after Williams belatedly reported that he had accepted $160,000 in gifts, and was fined a record $62,000 for the resultant ethics violation. Williams’ campaign finances and those of a non-profit he is involved in are also being investigated by the FBI, so there could be legal troubles in his future.
There are those in Philadelphia’s black community who see Williams’ fall as poetic justice. After all, Williams chose to prosecute five black elected officials for accepting bribes valued at far less than the gifts he failed to report. And when former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said race played a role in the targeting of those black office holders, Williams insisted that race was not a factor.
But Williams is not unique. His perceived failure to stand up for the black community is part of a larger trend that is eating away at the very foundations of black political power.
In short, African Americans are losing in the political realm, and the reason is simple. We’ve leaned on a strategy of electing black politicians with the understanding that they would look out for black interests. Instead, too many of them have looked out for themselves.
As a result, black voters have taken a dim view of political participation, and with the exception of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections that brought us Barack Obama, our local voting numbers have trended downward, and black political influence has followed suit.
That resulted in the election of Philadelphia Democrat Jim Kenney, who won the mayoral primary with just 27 percent of eligible voters participating. In a city where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, and blacks, who tend to vote Democrat, make up nearly half the population, Kenney’s election seemed to be an anomaly. But now, I’m not so sure.
During the mayoral election, we watched the African American community split when influential black politicians like Dwight Evans endorsed Kenney for mayor. Then we watched as Kenney and the labor unions that backed him returned the favor, endorsing Evans for Congress.
That kind of exchange is common in politics, and there is nothing corrupt about exchanging endorsements. But black voters are increasingly asking what we get out of the deal. The answer, too often, is nothing.
That’s why many black voters in Pennsylvania, and indeed nationwide, scoffed at the notion that Hillary Clinton was the heir apparent to Barack Obama. Black millennials, in particular, were drawn to Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist who promised to make everything from college to healthcare free. As skepticism prevailed, and new restrictive voting laws disproportionately affected young and minority voters, black turnout dipped 11 percent in the 2016 presidential election.
That decline—along with the lack of enthusiasm among Democrats in general—was enough to help swing the presidential election to Republican Donald Trump.
And now black voters are at a crossroads.
We face the grim reality that too many black elected officials are being ushered out of office due to ethical lapses, as was the case with Seth Williams, or criminal convictions, as was the case with former Congressman Chaka Fattah.
Many of those that remain in office are perceived to be more interested in their own advancement than they are in their constituents. And so long as we believe our politicians are not serving us, we will not vote in proportion to our population.
That’s why it’s not solely up to black voters to revive black political power. It’s also incumbent upon the politicians we’ve placed in office. Because while there are many who are quietly serving the community, there are also many who are not.
If black politicians continue to disappoint us, our votes will continue to dwindle, and our influence will continue to erode.
In the end, that erosion will not only hurt black voters. It will hurt black politicians as well. Because the same black officials who refused to serve black voters will be ushered out of office. Not by the conscious efforts of an engaged black electorate, but by the apathy of black voters who no longer care enough to participate.
It’s not too late to reverse the political decline in the black community. But in order to do so, black elected officials must give disillusioned voters a reason to participate.
Otherwise, everyone loses.
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