DESCRIBED BY ONE fellow journalist as “the conscience of Black America,” Roland Martin has been offering insight and incisive comment on the big news of the day for more than two decades.
A longtime familiar face on MSNBC and CNN—where he was part of the 2009 Peabody-winning Best Political Team on Television—the one-time executive editor of the revered Chicago Defender was also a regular on The Tom Joyner Morning Show. He now hosts his own week-nightly web show, Roland Martin Unfiltered, whose title and #BringTheFunk hashtag hint at the trademark straight-talking commentary that has drawn more than one mil- lion subscribers.
Martin is just as direct off-screen in his conversation with WayMaker Journal about the state of the country and what’s at stake in this year’s presidential election. The four-time NAACP Image Award winner sees the Democratic Party needing to develop new strategies if it is to retain its longtime hold on the Black vote. He cites the continuing drift among Black men—a nine-point difference between them and Black women in voting Democratic in the 2012 Obama-Romney election grew to 13 points in 2016 and, according to some estimates, between 15 and 17 points four years later.
“You’ve got Black men who have been angered by this lack of focus, attention from Democrats,” Martin says. “There were Black men who felt that Obama didn’t do enough. It was showing up in the data.” Now, some of them “are looking at the tax policy of Republicans and saying that benefits us more.”
All this means Democrats can’t paint with the broad brush they may have used in the past. “Just like we have to do in radio and television and sales and digital, you now have to micro-target Black people.” That requires different strategies for connecting with females, males, those in the upper-income bracket and lower-income. “Each successive year, the data shows that we are less self-identifying,” says Martin. “Now, we might still vote Democrat, lean Democrat, but we are willing to factor in other things . . . Democrats had better realize that’s what’s going on, or that 15-17 could very well be 20-22.”
For disaffected young voters who say they don’t intend to show up at the ballot box because they don’t believe it will make a difference, Martin has two rejoinders—each based on something that is probably a big concern to them.
First, student loan debt. President Biden forgave $127 billion in student loan debt, and a disproportionate number of the 3.9 million people who benefited are African American, Martin points out. Biden’s attempt to get rid of all student loan debt was blocked by the Supreme Court, and how did that happen? Because Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and went on to appoint three Supreme Court justices. “Elections have consequences,” Martin emphasizes.
Next, there’s the Supreme Court’s getting rid of affirmative action in colleges and universities. The president picks Supreme Court justices, but they are confirmed by the Senate. “So, you didn’t vote in Wisconsin?” Martin says, referencing Mandela Barnes’ narrow loss in the 2022 Senate race there to Republican Ron Johnson. And “if you didn’t vote in North Carolina, that means Cheri Beasley lost.” In Mississippi, Mike Espy was beaten out by Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith.
“What we have to do is connect the dots,” Martin says. “When people tell me, ‘Government doesn’t impact me,’ I’m like, ‘Are you nuts?’” From the cradle to the grave, the government is keeping track, he says—your birth certificate, immunization records, standardized tests in school, driver’s license, marriage license, divorce record, social security card, death certificate. All government documents.
“There’ s no facet of our lives, none, that government does not play a role [in],” he says. So the question is, who do you want to be making the decisions that matter?
“And by the way, that same young person [who says they are concerned] about us having the right juries when these cops get charged? If you’re not registered, you can’t be called for jury duty. It all ties back to registering to vote and then actually voting.”
Without diminishing the importance of the presidential election, Martin wants people to remember it’s not the only vote that matters. There are a multitude of elections every year—state, congressional, gubernatorial, state rep, state senate, district attorneys, judges, county commissioners, city mayor, city council, school board—“that, depending upon where you live, could actually matter more than the presidential race.”
Martin points to Beasley, who, before contesting the North Carolina Senate seat, had lost her seat as Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court in 2020. Had she won back then, the Democrats would have had a 6-1 majority. Instead, the Democrats’ majority was slimmed to a 4-3 majority and subsequently flipped to a 2-5 minority, “which now means that Republicans in the state could pass laws that negatively impact us.” The turnover all started with a losing margin of just 400 votes, and “I can guarantee you, there were thousands of Black people who did not vote.”
Martin turns his gaze to Florida, where former mayor of Tallahassee Andrew Gillum was defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial contest by 30,000 votes. “A significant number of Black people did not vote,” says Martin. “If Black people maximized our numbers, Andrew Gillum is the governor of Florida, [and] we’d never have heard of Ron DeSantis.
“In saying all of that, I want our people to understand that when we’re voting, 30%, 35%, 40%, 45%, 50% of our capacity, we’re leaving power at home. We’re complaining about what’s going on, but we literally have allowed it to happen.” Even a 65-70% Black voter turnout “could literally sweep elections.”
Voting is essential, but it is only the start, Martin says. “The election is the end of one process and the beginning of another”—holding politicians accountable to deliver their promises. “Once the election is over, we have to begin to apply maximum pressure. And that means phone calls, emails, showing up at town halls.”
When it comes to crime, Martin believes the issue has been “overhyped by national news media.” Social media amplifies things that “frankly, before, we wouldn’t necessarily know about. There’s this heightened, ‘Oh my God, these things are going haywire,’ when that could just be that one incident in that city on that day.” In fact, though people complain things are get- ting worse, crime stats are actually down, he says. He quotes John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope: “You never show me a riot in a neighborhood with a credit score of 700 or higher.”
The economic factor has to be acknowledged, Martin tells WayMaker Journal. “Ask any police chief . . . there’s a direct correlation between crime, education and income. And so what we are dealing with is a significant problem in this country when it comes to income, when it comes to jobs.” The same people who don’t want to raise the minimum wage “will then complain about crime,” he says. Then they will demand more money for police, but “police don’t stop crime. They come in after the crime has been committed.”
Name a place with low crime rates, “and I guarantee you, you will see a place where you have people who have jobs, who have homes, who have hope,” says Martin. “And America never wants to confront this very thing. We don’t want to deal with that . . . We have to deal with crime in a much different way than we have before. We can’t just act as if the economics of our society don’t play a role when it comes to crime.”
One important step, he suggests, is a hike in the minimum wage. He recalls during the COVID-19 pandemic how Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) complained that people were choosing to stay out of work because they made more money than working.
“The fool didn’t realize what he said,” he says. “If a person is making more money on unemployment than they actually were with the job, is it a problem with the job? But that’s our society . . . [it’s] all about how do we extract more wealth for owners and for shareholders and screw the workers . . . what we’ve done with this economy is a fundamental problem, and I think that’s what you’re seeing when you talk about crime in this country.”
Deliberate focus (SUBTITLE)
In addition to hosting his own show since 2018, Martin founded and curates the Black Star Network’s offering of news, business, culture and lifestyle content. He has also written four books, most recently White Fear: How the Browning of America Is Making White Folks Lose Their Minds (2022).
Though he has long been a trusted face and authoritative voice, Martin didn’t set out to be in front of the camera. As a communications student at Texas A&M University, when his peers rushed into the studio, he asked their teacher where the person was who told them all what to do. “She said, ‘Oh, they sit in the control room.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be in the control room,’” he recalls. “It was simple math: you can’t have 20 students in a class, and you can’t have 20 people on set. Somebody has to be not on set, and so I became highly proficient at what happens behind the camera, and later in front.”
Martin was named best student each of his four years there—something he references for how it illustrates what he believes is an important principle, rather than as a point of personal pride. “The day I stepped foot on the campus, I said to myself that I will be the best communications student that will ever come through this school,” he says. “Now, I didn’t say I will be the best communication student that has ever come through this school, because that would have meant I would have been the best up until I got there.”
Martin’s drive was both self-motivated and encouraged. Growing up loving sports, he devoured books on the subject: “I was a voracious reader.” Then there was his mother, telling him he needed to take a typing class. That “became crucial to me being a speed typer in news- paper [class],” and going forward, he was often promoted because of his proficiency.
He is also grateful for some unlikely advice his father offered. When Martin said he wanted to pursue sports journalism, Dad counseled against it. “He said, ‘Because I don’t want you learning all these things and then you get replaced by an athlete.’”
This was before former sports pros began to migrate to journalism, but a few years later, that’s just what started to happen. “And what we have seen ever since then, all across this country, [is] journalists who have been trained in sports have been replaced as anchors, as reporters, as analysts on major networks by former athletes. And so that advice right there was crucial.”
Martin’s determination to excel at college was “a complete pursuit of wanting to be absolutely great and then doing the things that require you to actually be great,” he says. It’s interesting, he goes on, that a young Black man who plays football and says they want to be the all-time NFL rushing leader is likely to be lauded, “but if you are Black and it’s non-athletic, then it’s looked upon as, ‘Oh, you’re being arrogant or cocky.’
“And I want next-generation folks to understand that there should be a pursuit to greatness, which means that you’re using all of your skill set, all of your talents to completely elevate yourself.”
To young people starting their careers, he recommends be prepared to spread your wings. “Go where the opportunities are,” he says, noting that if you grow up in a place like Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City and want to work there, “the reality is you’re competing in major markets . . . It doesn’t mean you can’t go back to where you’re from, but your opportunity in life may be in the South, in the Southeast, in the West. And so be willing to leave home to create the kind of life that you desire.”
“THERE SHOULD BE A PURSUIT TO GREATNESS . . . USING ALL OF YOUR SKILL SET, ALL OF YOUR TALENTS TO COMPLETELY ELEVATE YOURSELF.”
“THERE’S NO FACET OF OUR LIVES, NONE, THAT GOVERNMENT DOES NOT PLAY A ROLE [IN].”
ROLAND MARTIN: MY WAYMAKERS
My grandparents and parents. My grand- mother had a catering business, [where] I started working when I was seven years old. My grandfather passed when I was 15. We lived eight blocks from my grandparents, so those fundamental years were largely driven by family. We all basically went to the same Catholic church. We got together every Sunday at their house. I never spent the night at a non-family member’s house, didn’t have room for friends . . . That foundation is the most important thing. Too many Black kids, the reason we’re not seeing them thriving is because they do not have that strong family foundation where you’re going to study, you’re going to learn, you’re going to do well, you’re going to excel . . . the benefit that I had was that strong, stable family foundation.
From an interview with Louis Carr