The ability to vote is one of the greatest privileges we have as Americans. However, this right wasn't granted freely to all of us. Black Americans, in particular, have had to fight to be able to participate equally in our democracy and have their voices heard. It wasn't until the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 that Black men were granted the right to vote, and it wasn't until 50 years later that Black women earned this right with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Voting rights are integral to functioning democratic societies and functioning communities. In our country, the right to vote has had a profound impact on Black communities and families in numerous tangible and intangible ways, powerfully demonstrating the value of the vote and the fact that we still have more work to do to protect these rights for all Americans.
Black Americans and the Vote: The 15th Amendment's Impact
Congress passed the 15th Amendment in February 1869 and ratified the law on Feb. 3, 1870, making 2021 the 151th anniversary of this landmark legislation.
The 15th Amendment made it illegal for citizens to be denied the right to vote based on their race, color, or previous status as a slave. The law gave Black men the right to vote, but it would take nearly half a century to ensure that all Black Americans, including women, could cast their vote at the ballot box. However, even with these amendments, Black people's right to vote wasn't really strengthened until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped to combat voter suppression methods, such as literacy tests and voter intimidation, that prevented them from exercising their full voting rights.
Voting is so important because it isn't just about choosing between political candidates. It's one of the most impactful ways constituents can shape public policy decisions, including economic and social policies. Creating greater economic equity is an ongoing challenge for the country, as the unemployment rate among Black Americans is significantly higher than it is for white Americans. The average Black family also has eight times less wealth than the average white family.
Yet research has shown that higher voter turnout from lower-income populations positively affects long-term public policy related to economic inequality. To put it simply, legislators are pushed to address this systemic problem when people make their voices heard by voting. Research also indicates that greater participation from underrepresented constituencies leads to more spending on children's healthcare, increases in minimum wages, and more laws to combat predatory lending.
To be clear, these issues affect many parts of the electorate, but most of these challenges disproportionately affect Black communities, so increased civic engagement within these communities helps the country make meaningful progress toward greater equity.
Spurring Civic Engagement and Investment in Black Communities
The number of Black Americans participating in elections continues to increase — this community now makes up 12.5% of the electorate and has high voter turnout rates in presidential elections. This increased civic engagement shapes our democracy and local communities in several ways.
It creates more diverse representation in public office, which can help Black communities attract more federal funding and investment as their legislators sponsor bills, pass laws, and create programs that send money back to their districts. Such initiatives might include funding for after school and workforce development programs, higher education grants, and Housing and Urban Development programs that advance affordable housing and economic development in these communities.
When communities get more services and more resources, they are better positioned to thrive. This creates a better environment in which Black parents can raise their kids, open a business, and accumulate the assets necessary to build wealth, such as owning a home that appreciates in value over time.
Voting rights have also affected Black communities in ways we may never be able to measure fully. There's power in seeing Black people run for public office, create nonprofits and other organizations that make a difference in the lives of local children and families, and assume leadership roles in their communities — whether as a police chief, a school board president, or a mayor. A person may not believe they can be something until they see it, and having visible representation has no doubt inspired countless Black people of all ages to get more politically and civically involved and to become change makers in their own right.
As we've seen, when Black voters wield their political power, change happens and public policy conversations shift. As the voting rights organization Black Voters Matter says, "effective voting allows a community to determine its own destiny." The 15th Amendment laid the groundwork for Black Americans to reshape their own destiny, and in the process, enabled the U.S. to chart a new course in its history—one that has brought us gradually closer to creating a fairer, more equitable society.
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