“A lot of people endured a lot of hardship, humiliation, suffering, and pain. The least I can do is be my best, live my best life, and treat myself and my surroundings with respect.” – Nannie Helen Burroughs
I remember my first day interning at the White House. It was 1994, and I was assigned to the Presidential Personnel Office. After barely setting my desk up, I was alerted that all interns would meet in the auditorium for a quick briefing before the day started. I arrived as quickly as possible and grabbed a seat. Before the session began, I was pulled aside by an African American staffer. “To get the most of this experience, you must love the skin you are in. You are God’s Divine Design. He does not make mistakes. Don’t get caught up in wanting to be or trying to be like someone else. Everyone is gifted in different ways. Love being you.” Those words changed my life. I later learn that my grandmother asked her to watch after me, she worked in the dining room, and she lived in southeast Washington, DC.
My supervisor was from Arkansas and the White House Political Director. I enjoyed having a desk across from him. His job was to process SES, Schedule Cs, and Ambassadorships positions, and I was the only intern in the office. He was a senior staffer, one of the First Lady’s best friends, and always meeting with interesting people. After the first month and my workload began to slow down, he would occasionally invite me to eat lunch with him. “What’s your background?” “Where are you from?” At first, I felt his questions were pushy, and I didn’t know how much to share, so I froze up and couldn’t even remember my name, let alone my biography — generational trauma will sometimes do that. One day at lunch, my grandmother’s friend notice how uncomfortable I was, pulled me aside, and reminded me just to be myself. I followed her advice and began discussing shared values, connected with him, and the rest of my internship was terrific. From then on, we spent most of our alone time pondering, evaluating, and theorizing on American politics. I learned a lot discussing Washington Post articles with him, but most importantly, I felt like I belonged in the White House.
What I learned that summer is that no matter your background, gender, race, or religion, your success largely depends on opportunity, talent, and rapport. I learned how hard it is for a student of color to process workplace microaggressions. However, my supervisor demonstrated a willingness to connect with me and created space to engage him. Note that this form of exchange will be particularly beneficial for students of color during this global pandemic, economic, civil, and human rights crisis. Amid a persistent barrage of fractious issues stemming from a lack of quality education, financial freedom, and adequate healthcare, we must encourage and cultivate mentorships.
Recently I was talking with a past NAACP mentee about what it’s going to take for the United States to bounce back from this global pandemic, economic, civil, and human rights crisis. “A well-resourced and strong public education system.” His point was that a thorough, reflective, and individualized process for educating young people on civics principles would help. Also, we agreed that there is a need to expand democracy to include more significant numbers of young voters of color.
For example, a diverse electorate may help to stem a wave of “voter suppression” laws, executive orders, and voting impostor laws in multiple states. Thankfully, the Department of Justice has the power to interrupt these regressive efforts by not granting a clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — first passed in 1965 to outlaw voting practices that disenfranchised thousands of Americans. States with both (a) “tests” or “devices” that restricted the opportunity to register and vote and (b) less than 50% voter registration or voter turnout can no longer make changes concerning voting without “clearance” from the Department of Justice. This includes everything from redistricting, purging voter rolls, and changing polling places.
That’s the idea, but here we are, years later, in the 21st century, and politicians are still making it difficult for Americans to participate in democracy. According to a recent report, since 2011, more dozens of states have passed or attempted to pass laws and executive orders that disenfranchise voters of color. In Florida, the governor is pressing election officials to purge voter rolls with citizenship discrepancies – an action in the past that yielded a list of thousands of people of color. This process had a 78% error rate, and hundreds of people were wrongly purged. In the past, these actions produced federal lawsuits by the Department of Justice that claimed the violation of federal voting laws.
Remember the “pregnant chads” of 2000 that became the determining factor for a 534 vote presidential victory. During that same election cycle, Florida’s Secretary of State ordered election supervisors to purge ex-felons from the voter lists. This list “flagged” more than 90,000 names, of which close to 60,000 were purged. More than 54% of the list were people of color, and Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to create standards for states to follow while updating outdated voting systems.
What will our democracy gain from implementing laws that will have a disproportionate impact on voters of color?
- Florida voters of color make up 29% of the voting-age population, and 69% are registered to vote. In 2008, voters of color were 28% of the electorate, although more than a third did not vote.
- In Texas, Latinos accounted for 65% of the State’s growth between 2000 and 2010.
- Among young voters between the ages of 18 and 19-year-olds, over 60% are people of color and 41% Latino.
- Houston grew by 7.5% to 2,099,451 with over 400,000 “Key” VOC. Harris County has over 800,000 registered VOC.
Our country needs everyone’s help to bounce back from this global pandemic, economic, civil, and human rights crisis. Learning to love the skin you are in is a practice through which students of color and this country can redirect our social awareness and cultivate culturally competent civic, academic, and life strategies. It means engaging with each other to reflect on difficult issues and developing solutions. As mentors, we must be careful not to dissuade students from engaging in self-analysis even if we are not sure of the consequences. Quite the opposite, they will benefit from learning about themselves, and we should help them develop those strategies and ensure that the playing field is leveled for them. We are a nation of three hundred million Americans, and we all love this country. Therefore, there is no excuse for denying students of color opportunities to shape America. We must not compromise the promise of freedom, equality, and justice, especially if it compromises our democracy.
To be continued …
Kirk Clay is the President of Capitol View Advisors — a collaborative investing and acting on its values in creative and strategic ways to connect communities with the information and resources they need to support and further their aspirations.