IS THIS AMERICA?

I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with out (sic) telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Civil Rights Activist at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

The 2016 election cycle in the United States has been protracted, hostile, and ranged from merely discordant to bizarre. The level of xenophobia, misogyny, and racial hatred so openly expressed without conscience is utterly breathtaking. It is all reminiscent of the paralyzing terror that African Americans endured for a century following the abrupt end of the Reconstruction Era in the late 1800s. While not remotely as harsh, there are parallels between the experiences of African Americans over the century following the Reconstruction Era and that of disenfranchised communities during the 2016 election. Against this backdrop, I believe that the 2016 Presidential Election is probably more important than the historic 2008 and 2012 elections of President Obama.

As an African American mother parenting alone without support, I am more concerned about the 2016 election than any since I cast my first vote in November 1980. While I strongly disagreed with the policies of Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, I was confident that they all respected and understood the gravity of the office. In this presidential election, one candidate’s daily meltdowns and out of control machinations have caused me to fear for my and my children’s personal safety and security. As a United States citizen in 2016, I should not have to fear for my family’s personal safety.

While less now than in earlier generations, single mothers, particularly those of color, are still stigmatized. Despite our increased numbers, it is rare for politicians at any level to craft a policy agenda focused on the “kitchen table” issues that affect the lives of single mothers and their children. These kitchen table issues include equal pay, reasonable leave policies, access to excellent child care, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, well resourced schools and educational opportunities, and comprehensive health care.

That said, there are three kitchen table issues that are of paramount importance to me as a single mother in this election season. The first issue concerns the overuse of deadly force by police against African Americans. Quite frankly, I no longer have the mental capacity to absorb the gut wrenching pain that occurs each time an African American man, woman, or child is killed by police. It should be noted that I have condemned the senseless murders of police officers like those in Dallas who were simply trying to protect and serve. That said, I have a young adult son and teenage daughter. They have never been arrested or in trouble with the police. Both are honors students and my son will graduate from college in December. He defies every stereotype and statistic associated with African American males. I am exhausted with worry that my brilliant children will have an unfortunate encounter with police and never come home again. All of this saddens me because I represented police for several years. I know first hand that policing is an incredibly difficult job. I gained tremendous respect for the police officers who I represented because they conducted themselves as professionals. However, I believe that law enforcement must first “police” itself and prune the bad apples weighing down its departmental tree. These bad apples are not necessarily bad people. They just may not possess the temperament needed to be a good police officer. Implicit bias and racism are cancerous metastatic tumors that have destroyed the relationships between police departments and the communities of color they serve. Policing practices must be dramatically reformed. Business as usual over policing and unchecked deadly force is destroying our country. I do not want my own children to be innocent casualties of a practice that they did not start.

I am a single mother living with depression. As such, my second kitchen table issue is the need for comprehensive mental health care that includes a plan to address the scarcity of psychiatrists and advanced nurse practitioners. The nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and advanced nurse practitioners to manage medications has reached critical mass. It has been nearly impossible to find a psychiatrist or advanced nurse practitioner to regularly evaluate my medications to ensure that they still effectively treat my depression. I am not alone. There are literally thousands of individuals living with a mental illness across the United States facing this same dilemma. As a solo mom parenting without support, my children need me to be both mentally and physically healthy. Comprehensive mental health care will allow my children to have and see the very best of me.

My final kitchen table issue, the right to vote, is my personal holy grail. The right to vote is sacrosanct. It gives me a voice at the table and makes my other kitchen table issues possible. As such I am passionate about protecting the voting rights of African Americans. The full frontal attack on the voting rights of African Americans only accelerated after President Obama’s first election in 2008. In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General et al 570 U.S. _ (2013) hereinafter Shelby. Prior to the Shelby decision, specifically identified states and cities with a history of racial discrimination were required to submit all proposed changes in voting laws to the federal government for “preclearance” meaning review and approval before the law could be implemented. The Shelby decision eliminated the preclearance requirement which allowed states with a history of discrimination to immediately enact or implement voting laws without federal oversight. For example, in the wake of Shelby, states like North Carolina and Texas immediately moved to implement strict photo identification requirements, reduced the amount of time allowed or precincts available for early voting, and made it more difficult to register to vote. The virtual patchwork quilt of laws that have been enacted across the United States have the potential to generate so much confusion that certain groups will not bother to vote this November. Such an untenable result is antithetical in a nation founded on the principles of liberty, justice, and freedom for all people. So, it now falls to me and others who “hold these truths to be self-evident” to educate and equip single mothers, African Americans, and other disenfranchised groups to bring their collective voices to the table by exercising the right to vote.

Though daunting and at times discouraging, this critical work continues. In the words of my Spelman Sister, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

Originally published in FES Spotlight Elections Series

Stephanie Mitchell Hughes

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