City Paper: So who are these 100 million lost voters?
Farai Chideya: The first thing and biggest thing is lower income. After that, a lot of other factors—people who are younger, less educated, and people of color.
CP: You write that the American people need to trust the government in order for these lost voters to be reached. Why?
FC: You can’t trust the government unless you are the government. And the only way to be the government is to vote.
CP: Can you explain that?
FC: Basically, democracy is supposed to be by the people and for the people. So if you don’t have a government that’s actually by the people, it probably won’t be for the people. Now we have a government that’s kind of by half of the people. So we’re getting what we should expect by that kind of input. So the idea is that you don’t contribute to making the government, you’re not going to get that much from it. You can contribute by voting, engaging in dialogue, letter writing, e-mailing, going to elected officials’ offices, protesting, and of course by giving money. And in some ways local government is more important because it has more to do with your day-to-day life.
CP: Where does the 100 million number come from?
FC: It just comes from basically looking at Census numbers. It’s based on the trends of the past, which state that half of the American people don’t vote.
CP: In the preface of your book, you write, “every day we see evidence that America is falling apart.” How do you see America falling apart?
FC: Well, this could be a long answer, but I’ll try to keep it short. If you go back to the fundamental idea of no taxation without representation, which is what American government is built on, people in America don’t like to pay taxes because we don’t get good services. But if you look at polls, people want services. They want education, health care, roads. The thing is, America’s infrastructure, whether it’s health care, roads, or schools, is falling apart. And you have two choices—either fix the government so that it can do its job—it’s not like everything needs to be done by the government, but government has a role—or you go to this kind of social Darwinism and it’s every man for himself. That’s kind of where we’re headed. And it’s one thing to just say it’s every man for himself, but we claim that we have a government for the people. Really, it’s becoming more dog eat dog.
CP: How do you compare America with a country like Canada, where the citizens are more heavily taxed, yet the ghettos look like . . .
FC: Suburbs? We want everything, but we don’t want to pay for it. America has a cult of the free-market economy. We believe that private enterprise will fix everything, but there are some things that businesses don’t fix. Look at the flu shot. It’s not a big moneymaker for companies, and therefore there are people who are going to die this winter because the government didn’t want to play a more hands-on role.
CP: Some people have said of the upcoming election that they’re going to be voting for the lesser of two evils.
FC: That’s OK for now, but in order to fix the deep problems we have we need to reform the whole system. President Bush has done such a terrible job that people are happy to vote for the lesser of two evils. And it’s not that [John] Kerry is a bad politician, but he’s a lifetime politician. He’s used to making compromises, not speaking his mind, and not taking risks. And we need someone who will take risks, in the long term.
CP: You say in your book that the true number of unemployed people is not reported. For example, the unemployment numbers don’t include so-called discouraged workers, who have been unemployed for so long they have stopped looking for work. Why is the count of unemployed people in America allowed to be continually skewed?
FC: Because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In New York half of black men don’t have a steady job. And I’m sure in Baltimore it’s probably the same thing. It puts a lot of pressure on African-American families, too.
It’s interesting, the Oakland Tribune is running a series on black marriage, and part of the question is, are black marriage rates so bad because of the economic factors, or is it also social factors? And I think it’s both. It’s partly a combination of the fact that, right now, black women are more likely to be college educated, more likely to have steady jobs, and yet, at home, there was a study that showed that black working women were more traditional at home—doing more housework and stuff—and the researchers thought it was because black women didn’t want to upstage black men.
We’re trying to pretend that nothing’s changed. And I think that the hardest thing is the pretending. People put a lot of energy into playing roles, and that distracts us from looking at what’s really going on.
CP: Why are people, especially black people, so fed up with voting?
FC: In a lot of black communities, you see politicians come and go, and there’s garbage on the streets, the schools are still terrible, there are no banks, no hospitals in black communities. So people are fed up with the lack of change. I think a lot of things that have to happen have to start on the neighborhood level. I believe in political change through voting, but I also think that grass-roots change makes the most difference in your daily life.
CP: But if people don’t feel empowered enough to vote, how can we change things?
FC: It’s kind of an old saying, [but] each one reach one and teach one. I mean, there are a lot of organizations doing good work, but we should—all of us who are engaged with the issues—should talk to the people who we know and love and make politics real.
You have to have the will to make your voice heard. And maybe that’s not the way it should be, but that’s the way it is. You’ve just got to go back and say, “Look, you messed me over last time, but I’m back and I’m not going away.”
CP: Does the hip-hop generation fit into all of this, with recent marketing campaigns like P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die”?
FC: By marketing through hip-hop, people are speaking to younger Americans in their own language. However, you can’t just have a rally and call it being politically engaged. You have to actually learn something about the political process. And that’s where I’m afraid that these organizations are not willing to take the next step and just tell people, “Look, you have to educate yourself.” If you can spit rhymes for every rapper from Sugar Hill Gang to Kanye [West], you can remember a politician’s voting record.
CP: Your name is so beautiful. Where did it come from and what does it mean?
FC: Well, my dad was from Zimbabwe. The first name means “bringer of happiness,” and the last name means “one who likes to fight.” I just think all names mean something, so you might as well go with it.
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