Why we must vote: The right place for Black community members on Oct. 27 is at the ballot box

| October 20, 2014
Why we must vote: The right place for Black community members on Oct. 27 is at the ballot box

Editor's Note: This piece is composed in response to Why Black People should spoil their ballot in the Toronto Mayor's election, which was published in The Views Expressed in August of 2014.

In September, while attending a standing-room-only Mayoralty debate at the North York Civic Centre, organized by the Black Electoral Alliance, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm for civic politics in that hall. 

This was part of a series of debates organized in Toronto, Peel and Durham by this fledgling group. The debate involved three high profile candidates and two Black community candidates. A number of other civic candidates from the Black community were introduced and given a few minutes to speak.

For me, the enthusiasm and incredible attendance was a clear expression of the interest in the Civic elections in the Black community. There was no doubt that both the mainstream candidates as well as the Black candidates effectively articulated important messages about the need for the City to address the condition of Blacks in the City of Toronto. 

Blacks make up about nine per cent of the population but have a long history in Toronto. I was proud to hear brother Lee and sister Renee, Mayoralty candidates from the Black community make the case for representation and for the voice of the Black community belonging in the debate and the highest level.

Following that debate, (and there have been many other Civic debates in Toronto and Peel and Durham subsequently, organized by this and other groups such as the Tabono Institute led Black Community Agenda), I reflected on an article in rabble by an academic colleague and a friend, Rinaldo Wallcott, Why Black People Should Spoil Their Ballot in this Toronto Mayor's Election

His rather compelling argument is that none of the mayoralty candidates has seen it fit to directly address issues relating to the Black community, including lack of jobs for Black youth, targeted policing, poor transit service, inadequate and inaccessible housing in the predominantly Black neighbourhoods and gentrification (or displacement). So, he argues that the best way for Black voters to respond to this neglect is by rejecting them all and the most dramatic way to do that is to simply spoil their ballots.

Now, I categorically disagree with his conclusion and political advice. However, I identify with the concerns expressed and the sense of anguish (some would say despair) it communicates. I suspect it is widely shared in many minority communities who rationally ask whether the political system is capable of delivering real solutions to their persistence daily problems.

I must say unequivocally though that I consider it our civic responsibility to the community and to the society as a whole to make a choice among the candidates. Making 'no choice' often translates into making the wrong choice, perhaps the one with the most adverse consequences. I also think this debate is important and so I want to contribute a few thoughts to it. 

It would be hard to argue that the last four years have been uneventful in Toronto for Black people. Along with all the shenanigans among our civic leaders, we have seen the persistent loss of young Black life to violence and community mobilization to stem the violence.

Among other issues, we saw police carding (a form of racial profiling) become a mainstream issue of concern; TAVIS rampaging through our neighbourhoods like the U.S. army in Falujja, traumatizing many young people and their parents; concerns about the proliferation of Black children placed in child protection; a crisis of inadequate and unaffordable housing and growing concerns about homelessness; skyrocketing youth unemployment and child poverty; concerns about educational attainment defined by a gap in achievement, owing to streaming, disproportionate assignment to special education classes which lead to lower outcomes, and a still level of disengagement and high dropout rate.

Documenting political alienation

Some of us have been involved in documenting and disseminating information about the extent of socio-economic and political alienation that is becoming prevalent among Black and racialized populations in this city.

David Hulchanski and others at the University of Toronto Centre for Urban Studies have published a report titled the 'Three Cities Within Toronto'. It details the dramatic expression of the socio-political and economic sorting out happening in Toronto 'the Good' over the last 35 years.

While this condition is not new, the lack of concerted action to address it is frankly disappointing and embarrassing, and betrays the institutional and systemic nature of racially determined life chances in the City. But there is also the juxtaposed fact that these very populations are now a majority in the city, making their vulnerable futures not just a matter for them but for the City as a whole.

There is a research project underway to document the Black experience in the Grater Toronto Area (GTA). But we certainly know enough already to know that action is imperative so as not sacrifice yet another generation, and that demand for such action is the most urgent business of civic-minded African Canadians. We know that while Black communities have a relatively high immigrant population, Toronto is the centre of Black life in Canada.

However, Blacks here also have one of the highest poverty rates in the GTA, experience high unemployment and under employment rates, high precarious employment, poor access to adequate and affordable housing and Black children and youth are disproportionately subject to removal into child protection.

This is why we need a vibrant economic and social justice agenda to overcome these impediments to success.

The time we need to articulate a Black Community Agenda is precisely when our civic leaders are competing for power. We need to shout it from the rooftops, in the streets, at debates (again, of which there have been many more this cycle than before, in our communities and neighbourhoods, in schools and universities and colleges). 

Political engagement is essential for racialized communities

This must be a time of heightened political action not inaction. We are working against a strong current since we know that the demographic and socio-economic factors that represent the intersection of race, immigration and political participation have tended to lead to less not more electoral involvement -- even without specific prompting such as we see from Dr. Walcott.

Research shows that patterns of political and economic exclusion tend to determine levels of political engagement.

In an article co-authored by a Ryerson University colleague Myer Siemiatycki and Sean Marshall, 'Denominators of Difference: Immigrant Voting in Recent Toronto Municipal Elections', the authors document a drop off in voting between the 2003 and 2006 elections represented by the administrative pruning of the voters' lists between those two elections.

Over 300,000 voters were dropped from the voter's list, of which 81 per cent were immigrants who own property and pay taxes in Toronto. But the study also confirmed what others have said about voting patterns in Toronto's 140 neighbourhoods, showing that minority populations in the inner suburbs with higher levels of low-income populations had lower voting participation.

In essence, the neighbourhoods with high immigrant, racialized and Black populations have tended to vote at rates lower and some significantly lower than the average for the city. Blacks, among these have tended to stay away from the ballot box during municipal elections.

Nor is this just about immigrant status and not being familiar with the electoral culture as a study by Livianna Tossutti (2005) 'Electoral Participation of Ethno-cultural Communities shows'. It looked at those eligible to vote in 2000, and concluded that of all the respondents, Canadian-born Blacks reported some of the lowest turnout rates in the 2000 federal election.

Canadian-born Blacks between the ages of 20 and 29 voted at rates seven to 12 points lower than young Canadian-born individuals from primarily European backgrounds. Among Canadians aged 30 and over, Canadian-born blacks reported voting at rates 33 points lower than non-visible voters.

Regrettably, this low voter turnout has not been interpreted as a form of political action worthy of alarm and has not led to more attention to our concerns. If anything, it has diminished such concern and generated a sense of official neglect and apathy towards the challenges our communities face.

In some cases it has actually generated antipathy as some advanced pathological cultural explanation as to 'why we don't vote'. None of this has any earth shaking political or electoral impact. Instead, it is simply self-defeating. It also flies in the face of the fact that as African peoples, wherever we have been, historically we have had to fight for the right to vote, as an expression of our right to be full citizens of society.

The right to vote was won in struggle and through sacrifice and we have had to defend it against those who would claw it back or diminish its value and significance.

As Fredrick Douglass once said, power concedes nothing, and when not taken it will be used against you.

We have influence when we vote

The most important way to express our demands that civic governments act to address the conditions of distress in our communities is by taking part in the electoral process, as voters, as candidates and as volunteers in campaigns.

We need to take ownership of these political processes and their outcomes. It is true that we have had a complicated relationship to political power, because we have often felt the abusive and oppressive end of it. But we need a new relationship with political power, one that is less conflicted and nuanced. We need to pursue political power to ensure desirable political outcomes.

In the face of so much to fight for and demands to make, our place must be at the ballot box, using every means necessary to make a claim to the promise of full citizenship. Political engagement, not disengagement must be the path to take to power and relevance in this City.

The City of Toronto has a Youth Equity Strategy that came out of the hard work and sacrifice of many Black youth and some committed city staff, and driven by some enlightened City Councilors who both need our support to continue this work but also need to know that we are holding the others who have disregarded the plight of our youth accountable.

Since we cannot be there everyday as these youth activists and the staff and city councilors fight the good fight at City Hall, we must be there when we have an opportunity to express our approval or disapproval of what they have done the past four years.

Contrast that with the cavalier way that in the face of so much violence and despair among our youth, someone would offhandedly refer to City Youth programing as 'hug a thug', or insult the community with very specific cultural taunts and then turn around and say 'no one has done more for the community that I have'.

How can that level of disrespect and disregard not be responded to directly, actively, and with an overwhelming expression of rage and rejection?

That justifiable rage must not be internalized or expressed in the form of a 'battered voter's syndrome' by attempting to make light of it or even embracing it as representing warped form of affinity or attention.

The most productive way to exorcize this sense of disregard and disrespect is not to dismiss it and reject the electoral process. It is to rise to the occasion, set aside any other preoccupation of the moment and go to the polling station and categorically vote against it. It is to confront it, to reject it forthright and to denounce it as young Andray Domise has done by challenging for office in the heart of Ford nation in a career defining fight to take back the community. 

We know that voting works, as we have seen significant progress in terms of representation in Peel region for members of the South Asian population and in fact the Black community at the School Board level.

Four members of the school board, including its vice-chair Suzanne Nurse, are from the Black community. And the Board's focus on issues of minority representation among its teachers to reflect the student population which is 50 per cent racialized is beginning to bear fruit.

Luckily thousands of people in the Black community are involved in a variety of civic activities around the election. For instance, Lekan Alawoye has a real good shot to win in Ward 12. Idil Burale is in a spirited fight in Ward 1, Etobicoke North.

While I will not name check all the candidates from the Black communities, there are plenty in the City and they deserve our support. We need to address the 'racialized representation gap' in Civic politics. That is how we will impose our will on the Civic agenda.

Choosing a candidate presents challenges

Which brings me to the question of how we should decide which candidate to vote for.

At lead, two organizations I am involved with have been hard at work developing report cards that provide voters with a basis for making informed decisions on the candidates. The Colour of Poverty Campaign and the Black Community Agenda Civic Report Cards serve to identify key issues of concern in the community as well as provide voters a key tool to use to evaluate candidates.

These report cards represent a matrix for assessing preferences in the Toronto race -- Colour of Poverty has a report card that can be accessed at www.colourofpoverty.ca. It is based on publicly available information and evaluations of positions communicated to the Campaign on Affordable housing, Employment equity, Public Transit, the Municipal Franchise for immigrants, and policing and access to city services. 

The Tabono Institute led Black Community Agenda group has a report card. Their Voter Report card addresses candidates' positions on such issues as on Affordable Housing, Poverty and Employment, policing, transit, among others.

The Black Community Agenda, for instance, contrasts the positions of the mainstream candidates with those of the Black Community Agenda to offer the voter a point of reference. The Black Community Agenda group has also generated a number of questions residents can pose when they go to the all candidates meetings, on Transit, Poverty and employment, Affordable Housing and Policing. This is important, constructive and useful work that needs to be shared widely and continued every election cycle. 

We are more than capable of influencing the outcome of this mayoralty election and we must get back to the business of doing exactly that. The work done before voting day on October 27 will make the difference on the outcome of October 27.

In the words of Marcus Garvey, 'Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people. Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom'.

Let's get to it.

Grace-Edward Galabuzi is an Associate Professor in the Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. Among other works, he is the author if Canada's Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion if Racialized People in the New Century. He is also involved in community activism on a number if issues in Toronto.

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