Editor's Note: Delaware Currents usually runs stories about the river. But this column speaks to the larger issue that we in the watershed, and all over the United States, have to talk about and work on. As my friend Kathy Klein, the executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, wrote: Environmental justice can’t exist without social justice.
I’ve cried many a tear as a black man in America. Sometimes, it is the only way to process the fact that, in the eyes of so many, I’m a walking threat for no reason other than the blackness of my skin. And it’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I’ll never forget my mother telling me when I was growing up that her one job was to make sure I survive in America — to find ways to ensure that when I left the house to go play and hang out with my friends, I made it back home alive.
Today, I’m a black man representing a district that is nearly 90 percent white and in one of the most rural parts of the country. I’m the first person of color to ever represent upstate New York in Congress. The road I traveled to get here was not easy. But my experience is proof that voting can bring about change that once might have seemed out of reach — in fact, it’s crucial to changing the laws and policies that have caused so much agony.
With survival comes pain and grief to the point your mind is too weary to think and words don’t seem to matter anymore. I felt that during the multimillion dollar, race-baiting ad campaign launched against me during the 2018 campaign, designed to make me out to be a threat to the very community I come from. The attacks were relentless and maliciously played on ugly stereotypes and degrading notions of black masculinity.
Language can hardly do justice to the depth of anguish and heartache I felt during those moments. It was hardly the first time I’d felt such despair. The dehumanization of racism relentlessly beats upon the soul. And the image of yet another person taken from us sets off fits of rage I know in my heart do no one any good.
Anger is natural and expected, but it must be channeled for a higher purpose, otherwise it becomes self-destructive. So you pray and you pray for an answer, and somewhere down deep, a voice rises above the cries of the soul to affirm that the only choice, the only answer, is love.
What is love? In times like these, it’s justice in action; it’s agency grounded in the moral observation that we are all one — that, as the Roman African playwright Terence wrote, “nothing human is alien to me.” And let us understand that love in action is hopeful without being a pushover; powerful without being destructive; schemeful without being sinister. It’s how change happens in a democracy set against the alternative that only might makes right or that only certain “men” are fit to govern. Here in America, we have committed ourselves to the noble idea that ordinary people can govern themselves — and do so freely.
None of this is to suggest that voting is the be-all and end-all. Protesting and engaging in civil disobedience have a critical role to play, especially as an expression of love.
Protest and voting go together: The twin pillars of our democracy are freedom to speak our minds, and one-person, one-vote.
Indeed, the power of the vote is often maximized when it can tap into the energy protesters make visible.
But protesting alone is not enough. If you want to hold police officers accountable through the criminal justice system, then you need to vote and elect prosecutors who will do so. If you want to change training practices and use-of-force policies to prevent unjust outcomes, then you need to vote for local officials who will make these changes and negotiate contracts that bring about real accountability. And if you want national leaders with the moral courage to lead with compassion and love rather than with cowardly fear-mongering designed to fan the flames of hate and division, then you must vote for those leaders.
Let your voice and your vote be heard, if you want to make change happen.