Why I Won’t Vote for “Mayor”

William was hard to describe. Not physically: he was 5’5”, bald, Black and beautiful, with an immaculate mustache and goatee. It’s the rest of him that’s difficult to describe. He just did so much. 

Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, William enjoyed playing tennis and singing and he was good friends with Albert Einstein. He was highly educated, the first Black person to earn a Harvard doctorate. He was a professor of economics and sociology and history. He was an author and an activist. He had a deep belief in civic responsibility, which was why he became one of the founding members of the NAACP. Beyond anything else, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was a change-maker. 

Given all this, it may seem counterintuitive that in 1956, at the age of 88, Du Bois wrote an essay for The Nation called, “Why I Won’t Vote.” Like the man, the essay is a lot of things. First of all, it’s hopeful, or about “dogged hope” as he writes. Unsettlingly, it also mirrors our current moment in history, as it speaks of a president in failing health as well as our adversarial relationships with China and Russia. Overall, the essay is an account of all the presidential candidates for whom Du Bois had voted and how they either ignored the interests of Black people or directly harmed us. 

He also undermines a common observation that was a cliché even in 1956: “I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no ‘two evils’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”

I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot since the Portland mayoral race began. Candidates are in full campaign mode and they’re all telling the same lie: Portland has a mayor. 

Some will argue, but let’s look at the history.

If you are unfamiliar with local history, this is going to sound absurd, and it is. But in 1923, the Portland Press Herald and the chamber of commerce joined forces with the Ku Klux Klan to install a white supremacist form of government in the City of Portland headed by a city manager. The new arrangement was designed to subjugate Black people, and it puts all the decision-making power in the hands of this un-elected bureaucrat. The changes made in 1923 also rid Portland of its elected mayor and reduced its city councilors to little more than lobbyists vying to influence the manager. 

Portlanders have always hated this and have been trying to change it ever since, but politicians are good at distraction. In the 1960s, the city council decided to bestow the title “mayor” upon its ceremonial chairperson, so people couldn’t technically say the city didn’t have one. But the man (and, for nearly all this time, it’s been a man) with all the decision-making power was still the unelected city manager. 

Then, in 2010, to thwart continued efforts to rid the city of its white supremacist form of government, it was decided that Portlanders would be able to vote for this “mayor.” Governing power, however, remained with the unelected city manager.

Over the years, Portland’s white supremacist form of government has led to a segregated city with some of the most disproportionately high Black-to-white poverty rates in the country. I cover all this and more in my podcast, 99 Years, and wrote about it here a year ago [“99 Years,” Oct. 2022].  

Since taking office nearly two years ago, Portland City Councilor Victoria Pelletier, the Black woman representing District 2 (West End, Parkside), has been harassed and threatened by white supremacists. Those same white supremacists have been publicly demonstrating downtown the entire time. This includes this past April, when scores of Nazis marched through Portland screaming racial slurs at passersby, displaying a banner that read, “Defend white communities,” and eventually attacking LGBTQ activists in front of City Hall. The police interrupted the attack, but let the white supremacists leave despite a state statute allowing arrest and a jail sentence of up to six months for Disorderly Conduct. This all aligns with a study of the PPD released last December that showed Black people were more than three times as likely to be arrested than white people in Portland.

White supremacists have also been logging into city council meetings via Zoom, disrupting the proceedings and harassing people for the better part of a year, and somehow city leadership has yet to learn how to screen them out.  

Now, guess which mayoral candidate will do anything about any of this? None, which is the point. 

To be clear, I’m not telling Portlanders not to vote this fall. When it comes to school board seats and referenda, voting is incredibly important. I am saying that if your objective is to perform a civic duty, and voting for a mayor is pointless, then your civic duty must then become making your vote actually count for something. Until that happens (and I’ve said this before), you can call a fork a “spoon” all you want, but good luck with that bowl of soup.

Samuel James is a musician and storyteller whose work has been featured on The Moth as well as This American Life.

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