Never let it be said that Black-ish isn’t willing to tackle the big issues. Last week the Johnson family discussed the biggest possible topic (God); this week they went for something a little closer to home: the end of the Obama era. Amidst all the back-and-forth about the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget that no matter who wins, the end result will be another white president. Dre Johnson, for one, wants to make sure that Obama’s departure doesn’t equal a rolling back of all the strides black America made during Obama’s presidency. In order to do that, he’s going to ensure the election of another black president, albeit on a much smaller scale. Junior, you see, is running for class president.
Don’t let Dre’s hokey nostalgia slideshow of Obama family photos fool you; the Johnson family patriarch has a serious understanding of the significance of the United States’ first black president. As Dre sees it, Obama is a long-awaited high on a continuum of black electoral politics that begins in 1869 with the 15th Amendment giving black Americans the right to vote, goes through the failures of Reconstruction and the dominance of poll taxes and violent voter suppression for the next century. It crests with the 24th Amendment in 1964 (banning poll taxes and other suppression measures) and Obama’s iconic first election in 2008, but unfortunately remains in flux thanks to multiple voter ID laws passed in 2011. Dre doesn’t mention that the problem is even worse than that, thanks to the Supreme Court striking down provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2014, a decision which has led to multiple struggles with voter ID laws this year alone. Dre’s conclusion, one shared by many Americans, is that despite the glorious highs of the Obama era, black Americans’ position in the culture still feels tenuous, like it can easily be ripped away. That’s why this election is important, he says, and of course on one level he’s referring to the real-life battle between Clinton and Trump (where one candidate doesn’t have the best relations with or support from minorities) but also, more literally, to Junior’s high school race. The latter might be the tougher fight when all is said and done, given that Junior’s preparation for the election so far mostly includes deciding which pair of elf ears looks more realistic.
Meanwhile, Bow picks up the mail and finds two surprises: a new issue of Black Braids (apparently belonging to Pops, who no longer feels the need to deny his guilty pleasures) and a notice that the location of their polling place has changed. The latter is no shock to Pops, who takes constant switches like that as evidences that elections are rigged, and thus doesn’t vote. Bow can’t believe this, but Pops isn’t alone in his beliefs. Johan (Daveed Diggs) also believes that elections are rigged; how else do you explain Bernie Sanders not winning the Democratic nomination? As Bow points out, the explanation for that is easy: Hillary got more votes. Johan isn’t buying it, and for a second he and his sister become an exact mirror of a debate that has occurred identically over and over ad infinitum across leftist Twitter since the end of the Democratic primary.
As it turns out, Jack also shares his grandfather and uncle’s cynicism thanks to the electoral process, based solely on his experience with an election for a new classroom pet. According to Jack, the choice is between a parrot, a snake, and a guinea pig, but obviously the school wouldn’t let them get something as cool as a snake. Plus, they’re holding the election during lunchtime on the cafeteria’s chicken stars day. This is a classic case of voter suppression, Johan affirms.
Meanwhile, Diane is helping Ruby pick out an Election Day outfit. According to Ruby, the three essentials for an Election Day outfit are breathability, walkability, and sensuality. After all, she explains as if picking out clothes for Easter Mass, her ancestors didn’t struggle for freedom so she could show up to voting booths in sweatpants. She’s much more concerned about picking this outfit than figuring out which candidate to vote for, because she already knows she’s going to vote for the Democrat. That sounds like ignorance to little Diane — shouldn’t you vote for the candidate who most shares your values and policy positions, regardless of party affiliation? Ruby isn’t having it and makes a point about the importance of party solidarity using the 2000 presidential election, where many voters mistakenly cast a ballot for Pat Buchanan due to faulty voting booths (though in Ruby’s version, the real cause of the mistaken votes were improper shoes and faulty Election Day outfits).
NEXT: White justice
At Dre’s office, Charlie and Curtis are equally moved to tears by Dre’s sappy Obama slideshow. Charlie declares that they have to figure out a way to get him a third term, a sentiment not shared by Leslie. Dre and Charlie’s boss is distraught that white children don’t have a white president to look up to. He’s much less concerned about his son Connor (Nelson Franklin), even though said progeny (now accompanying dear old dad to the office) may be a serial killer named the New Haven Ripper who beat murder charges with an insanity plea. Connor also disapproves of Obama: “Speaking of strangling, look at what he’s done to the economy” (no one was talking about strangling). Dre worries that Obama’s achievements will be forgotten once he leaves office, but the only thing Connor’s going to remember is the idiotic claim that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim. Leslie quickly warns his son not to say that in public, even though it’s true, a goofy exchange that cuts to the heart of the modern Trump phenomenon (where millions of American voters are lining up to support the presidential candidacy of a celebrity who first rose to political notoriety promoting a racist conspiracy theory about the nation’s first black president). Dre responds by vowing to pour even more energy into Junior’s class president campaign.
Said campaign is unfortunately not going too well, thanks to Junior’s decision to wear a brightly colored pantsuit to one of his stump speeches. Bow points out that this is exactly the kind of thing that happens to Hillary. As of right now, Junior isn’t the Obama surrogate Dre wanted so desperately — he’s Hillary! Dre’s not giving up that easily, however. Since Junior’s one of the only black kids at his school, Dre determines to maximize the coolness of his blackness.
Now Johan and Pops are weighing in on Jack’s class pet decision. Johan thinks they should go for a ferret instead (sounding much like a Bernie voter with his high expectations), but Pops thinks they should stick to something more “realistic” — you know, like a shark or a bald eagle. Jack’s got other problems, though: Since he got detention for talking in class, he can’t vote in the election. Johan and Pops waste no time in connecting this to the greater disenfranchisement of felons and ex-cons in America, a problem that disproportionately affects black Americans due to racist policing and high incarceration rates. The scene’s final joke is that this discussion is occurring in the midst of watching the recent O.J. Simpson documentary O.J.: Made in America. Johan and Pops leave the final description of their demographic’s electoral struggles up to O.J.’s friend Joe Bell: “This is white justice.”
Junior’s giving his stump speech another shot, and this time the pantsuit is nowhere to be found. Instead, this candidate’s got a cool jacket, a stylish hat, and a boombox blasting Desiigner’s “Panda”… that is, until his Pandora station betrays him and switches to Owl City’s “Fireflies” instead, inciting mass laugher and humiliation. Commiserating later at work, Charlie tells Dre that “10 million fireflies is hard to recover from.” His strategy involves immediately storming out of their present meeting, causing white co-workers and bosses to assume that his cousin must have been murdered in a drive-by shooting. That’s a racist assumption, yes, but Dre watches as it leads to Leslie giving Charlie a week off and collecting monetary donations from the staff to pay for flowers. He tells Dre not to worry since “I’m sure you pay for your share of murder flowers.” This simultaneously hilarious and unsettling line demonstrates for Dre the power of white guilt, a power he decides to weaponize in support of Junior’s electoral comeback.
Meanwhile, Diane is refusing to let her grandmother settle for a blind choice. She gives Ruby one of those quizzes that helps determine which candidate you most align with personally. Ruby swears she’s a Democrat through and through, but her responses to the quiz’s questions sound suspiciously like those of a Trump supporter: “There’s not a wall between us and Mexico? No wonder they keep coming over and stealing our jobs.” She even utters the Republican candidate’s famous slogan, “Make America great again.”
Unlike the rest of the family, Bow seems relatively unfazed by any election (she’s definitely voting for Hillary). She’s much more concerned with Zoe’s college application. Zoe, in turn, is not stressing out about it. After all, she tells mom, everyone says it’s all about the essay anyway. Bow then asks what Zoey’s planning to write about for her essay. The answer? “Instagram Filters and How They Capture My Hourly Moods.”
NEXT: White guilt
Luckily, the white guilt stratagem appears to work out for Junior. Dressed in a black suit and glasses, Junior starts to give a speech about his solution to vending machine supply issues, but abruptly switches to a picture of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross. By the time Junior switches back to candy, his white classmates are sitting in rapt attention, eager to lend him their support to make up for the crimes of their ancestors. All seems to be going well, until Junior gets home and finds a post on a student-made website decrying “Andre ‘Son of a Slave’ Johnson” and declaring the election rigged. Even worse, as Dre quickly points out, the picture itself is heavily darkened from Junior’s actual yearbook photo to make his skin look darker: “They O.J.’d you!” Speaking of whom, what’s the best term for this turn of events, Joe Bell? Oh, right. “White justice.”
White justice apparently appeals to Ruby, or at least Trump’s version of it. The results are in from Diane’s quiz, and apparently Ruby’s correspondence with Trump is so high the quiz thinks she actually is Trump. Given that Trump has polled at literally zero percent among some black populations, this almost feels like the most unrealistic aspect of the episode, even if it is a heartwarming fight against our current uber-polarized political culture. Demographics don’t need to determine everything, even if they seem to for now.
Dre isn’t giving up on Junior, and he’s ready to turn this unfortunate twist to their advantage with catchphrases replacing the n-word with “rigger”: “Who you calling a rigger?” “Rigger, please!” Junior, however, is ready to quit politics. He’s tired of pretending to be someone else. He doesn’t want to be Head Rigger In Charge if it means giving up his own values.
Dre responds by making yet another hokey slideshow he can cry to alone — this time made up of Junior’s campaign highlights. Bow teases him for it, and in response Dre reiterates his worry that Obama’s departure from the White House might end up rolling back all his achievements. Bow promises that won’t happen. One thing she can’t promise, though, is Zoey making it to college, given her abysmal choice of essay topic.
Meanwhile, Pops, Johan, and Jack are still mired in political cynicism. They resolve to create their own party dedicated to not voting, but that’s when Michelle Obama’s inspiring DNC speech comes on, and her rhetoric about carrying over the fire from the Obama campaigns to this one moves the cynics to tears. They rush out of the room in their excitement to vote.
Speaking of votes, turns out Junior got quite a few of them. He decided to re-enter the race after watching his opponent force school janitors to clean up after him. So now Junior’s class president, but there’s some bad news, too: The student government is in debt, certain teachers can’t even read, and there are a host of other problems to deal with. In the end, Junior is an Obama parallel, Dre notes, right down to inheriting a country in crisis from his white predecessor.
Turns out Zoey wasn’t oblivious to her family’s white guilt strategies. She used it in her essay, and now Bow’s confident she’ll make it to college. Don’t forget to claim you’re Samoan on scholarship applications, she reminds her daughter.
The end result is a spirited episode of Black-ish that takes on many real-life election issues (birtherism, voter ID laws, voter suppression) with sharper commentary than any seen in this season so far. Although the episode never directly invokes it, the title (“40 Acres and a Vote”) refers to the initial promise by Union commanders after the Civil War that freed slaves would be granted 40 acres of land and a mule to work it as reparations for their ancestors’ centuries of suffering. That still-unfulfilled promise continues to haunt modern America in multiple different ways, and this week’s Black-ish took an honest crack at several of them.