Where will you be on Election Day 2014 and in 2016? Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, hopes that African-Americans will be willing to stand in line to vote for whomever's on the ballot even though it won't be Barack Obama.
At BET's fourth annual Leading Women Defined summit in Washington, D.C., each woman laid it on the line about what's at stake for Black voters if they don't show up and make their voices heard in a discussion moderated by Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC contributor and managing editor of The Grio.
"In 2008, Obama won. Black voters across the country turned out in record numbers. And then in 2010, we didn't show up," Dianis said. "So while we were celebrating, other people were calculating."
As a result, Republicans took control of several state legislatures that year and redrew political boundaries to ensure long-term power. In 2011, they began passing laws that made it more difficult for African-Americans and others to vote.
Now the Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forces states with a history of racial discrimination to seek clearance from the Justice Department. It is what prevented Pennsylvania's Republican-led legislature from being able to implement a strict new voter ID law last year that Dianis noted could have cost Obama the election.
"Civil rights in this country is unfinished business and racism is alive and well. We have to forever watch every little thing they do because they are thinking and scheming as we are sleeping," said Fudge of those who seek to dilute Black voting power, adding that voters need to "wear out" their lawmakers' phones to send a message to the Supreme Court.
Fudge also addressed the hot-button issue of gun control reform. She predicts that Congress will not pass an assault weapons ban.
"Newtown was a tipping point and there's probably not a person who didn't feel the pain, but I feel that pain every day," Fudge said. "When we put guns in the hands of anybody, we especially as people of color need to address this issue no matter what the Congress does."
Dianis added that tackling the root causes of the gun violence ravaging Black communities is as important as gun control reform.
"Where are the counselors? Where are the psychologists? Where are the conflict resolution programs?" she asked. "Our kids need conflict resolution programs to prevent the violence before it happens. The question is whether or not Congress will have the will to actually focus on those issues."
Immigration is another issue that elicits strong reactions, and some African-Americans fear that immigration reform could impact their own employment prospects.
"There is this real divisive theory that if we allow more immigrants to come into this country that they're going to take our jobs. It is simply not true. Every person I know who wants to work in a hotel and change sheets can do it," Fudge said. "Anyone that I know who wants to work in these fields by the sweat of their brow, the bend of their back, picking lettuce and fruit, can do it. We don't want those jobs. Let's be real about that."
Dianis said that a broken immigration system can adversely impact American workers. It drives wages down because undocumented workers are vulnerable and often taken advantage of, creating a "sinking ship for all of us because they have to bargain away their rights," she said.
The ongoing challenges and obstacles African-Americans face underscore the continuous need to develop and groom a pipeline of leaders at all levels of public policy and service. Getting started often is as simple as getting involved with an organization or issue however you can, Fudge advised.
"The most important thing is you have to want to do something for somebody other than yourself. And when you get to that point you will find that outlet for yourself. You just have to be willing to move up whatever chain that is and not limit yourself based on the things that we get hung up on," Fudge said, "like I don't like the person who runs that organization or I don't like what that one is wearing. Once we can get beyond that and understand that there is a purpose for which we want to work and make change I think you'll find whatever it is you choose to do."
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(Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images for BET)