Esther Bush says the work to register Black voters in Pittsburgh began long before November 2020—decades before. “Every year, we have a get-out-the-vote campaign. Every year, annually,” Bush says.
Bush serves as executive director of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, a 100-year-old civil rights and social service organization serving the Black community in Pittsburgh. Even outside the official annual campaign, Bush says that the Urban League builds voting access into its day-to-day work.
“We try to encourage the 25,000 or people we serve every year to vote,” she says. “When they come in for services, we ask, ‘Are you registered to vote? Here’s some information on how to do it.’”
Across the Midwest, Black voters were instrumental in swaying the outcome of the 2020 election. In Pennsylvania, and also Wisconsin and Michigan, Joe Biden won by margins small enough that they would evaporate without the support of Black voters, who overwhelmingly went for the Democrat. Now, in the wake of the election, organizers say it’s vital to appreciate the work of people working on the community level, year after year, to help Black communities access the vote—the sort of work the Urban League does in Pittsburgh.
Bush is clear about why the Urban League dedicates so much work toward getting out the vote in Black communities in a place like Pittsburgh: Centuries of brutal disenfranchisement and voter suppression in the North have kept generations of Black people from accessing the voting booth. For even longer than the Urban League’s history, Black voters have faced immense obstacles between themselves and the ballot box in Pittsburgh. Bush says that even after the era of a de jure segregation, with its poll taxes and rigged tests, Black communities have had to overcome countless different forms of systemic adversity, simply to exercise their right to vote. And while much of the focus on racist disenfranchisement focuses on the South, Bush is clear: “This is throughout America,” she says. “Any of us can list examples of voter suppression that have taken place across this country.”
The forms of voter suppression are multiplicitous and ever-evolving. In her community in Pennsylvania, Bush says that gerrymandering—redrawing districts to weaken the vote of Black communities—has been a persistent tactic politicians have used to weaken the influence of Black voters. In the Midwest, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio each have strict voter ID laws. Michigan also requires voters to produce photo ID, but enforcement is less strict. And across all these states, the system of mass incarceration and over-policing has led to many Black people losing their right to vote.
In Wisconsin—another critical state in the election—Black people are incarcerated at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. In Milwaukee, Angela Lang is the founder of BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. She explains that mass incarceration has kept tens of thousands of Black people from voting in the city where she was born and raised. In Milwaukee, There, more than 50% of Black men in their 30s and 40s have spent time in prison.
“I think about how devastating the criminal justice system has been on our community. We’re home to one of the most incarcerated zip codes in the country,” Lang says. In that zip code in particular—53206—the numbers of incarceration are even higher than the city at large. Over 60% of men over age 34 have been incarcerated at one time.
Lang says that some of the most important work BLOC does is helping formerly incarcerated people claim the vote that is their right. Part of that means educating people about the status of their voting rights. Lang remembers knocking on a door in 2019 in Milwaukee. “Are you planning on voting?” she asked the man who answered the door, after they had spoken for a bit. He responded that he couldn’t—he had a felony conviction. Lang followed the tips she gives the canvassers she trains. “I don’t mean to be invasive, [but] do you mind if I ask if you’re off papers? Off supervision?” He responded he’d been off of parole supervision for years.
“And that’s when we tell people, ‘Well, you could have been voting this whole time,’” Lang says. She explains that, in Wisconsin, when people are released from prison, they receive a persistent and intense message: It is illegal for them to vote, and they could go back to prison if they try. That fact is true, but Wisconsin law allows people with felony convictions to vote once they’re off supervision. However, few people receive that message as strongly as the first one, if it all.
“On the one hand, it’s a very powerful moment when you are able to tell somebody that their voting rights have been restored,” Lang says. “But also, for me personally, it’s equally infuriating that they had gone this long and I had to be the one to tell them. We do such a good job of letting people know when their voting rights have been taken away, but no one keeps that same energy and tells them that they’ve voting rights have been restored.”
Lang says that, besides the specific disenfranchisement mechanism of something like mass incarceration, the “structural challenges of classism and racism” can create massive barriers between Black voters and the polls. Studies have found Milwaukee to be one of the worst cities in the country for African American quality of life. Black people experience higher joblessness, lower wages, and lower homeownership. The city is also the single most racially segregated metro in the country.
“If you are just trying to survive day to day, it’s hard to participate politically,” Lang says.
In Pittsburgh, Bush says that one of the more potent—but hard to point out—forms of disenfranchisement comes from a sort of despair: A feeling that voting doesn’t matter. She says that, for generation after generation, Black communities have had to fight for basic political representation. Throughout her life and career, Bush has seen people reach a point of frustration and exhaustion—feelings she’s also experienced.
“How do you tell someone that all this is worth it? That their vote matters,” she says. “I mean, why is it that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t end all the issues around voting? How many times do we need to pass new laws? Black folks are made to fight the same battle repeatedly, over and over again. It’s unbelievable. It’s highly frustrating and extremely exhausting.”
In U.S. schools, the history of white supremacist voter suppression that students learn often focuses on the South, where poll taxes and murderous voter intimidation remained rampant for well over 150 years after the Civil War. Less appreciated is the intense and structural racist systems that ensnared Black communities in northern cities like Pittsburgh or Milwaukee.
In the 20th century, the Great Migration saw millions of Black families move northward, towards the industrial centers of Chicago and Detroit. While seeking to escape the white supremacist totalitarianism of the Jim Crow-era South, families met with intense racism in the North as well. Northern cities remained legally segregated for much of the 20th century, and redlining and urban planning in the decades since the civil rights movement have kept midwestern cities deeply segregated. Notably, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called Chicago the most racist city in the country. (In a section of his book condemning the quiet racism of white liberals, King wrote, “As long as the struggle was down in Alabama and Mississippi, they could look afar and think about it and say how terrible people are. When they discovered brotherhood had to be a reality in Chicago and that brotherhood extended to next door, then those latent hostilities came out.”)
Today, the legacy of that de jure and de facto racial oppression manifests in low voter turnout in some cities across the Midwest, like Detroit and Milwaukee. While instrumental in assuring Biden’s victory this year—and Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012—voter turnout in majority Black-neighborhoods still, in general, lagged behind national averages in those cities.
However, organizers like Lang fiercely reject any narrative that tries to claim that their communities and neighborhoods are not politically engaged.
“I think there’s sometimes a mentality that if people don’t show up, they’re apathetic,” Lang says. “And I’m of the mindset that people are not apathetic—it’s just that there are so many challenges and ways to be disenfranchised that it’s hard to show up.”
The persistence of those challenges is why the community work of organizations like BLOC in Milwaukee or the Urban League in Pittsburgh is some important—working toward enfranchisement and voter turnout means more than just knocking on doors in the months before an election. It takes the sort of sustained, years-long work towards building community power that can only come from local organizing.
“The thing that’s so special about local organizations like ours is that we don’t go away after the election. We’re able to continue to engage folks,” Lang says.
In Pittsburgh, Bush says that she finds the persistence to continue working year in and year out from the knowledge that the rights she’s fighting for are the rights she’s owed.
“I’ll say it in a joking manner, but I mean every word of it, as we fight for equality here in Pittsburgh: ‘I ain’t no ways tired, cause you owe me,’” Bush says. “No matter what you say or do, I am aware of my rights and I’m going to fight for them. You can get tired of me saying it, but I’m going to keep coming back to you until I get equality.”