As Americans go to the polls to elect their next president African-Americans are poised to play a significant role in the electoral process, but Black voters are also divided between politicians whom they have viewed as allies in the past and their disappointment with those allies once they came to power. While older Black voters seem to believe that they should take the “safe” route, by voting for familiar candidates, younger voters are looking for signs of deeper commitment and they are determined that no one will take their votes for granted ever again.
Why the Democratic Party is the Only Game in Town for African-Americans
Whomever African-Americans end up voting for in the general election the candidate is likely to be a Democrat because the Republicans persist in running campaigns that are at best indifferent to African-American concerns and, at worst, hostile to them.
As I have written previously, the single most notable characteristic of today’s Republican Party is its lack of racial and religious diversity. A study conducted by Gallup Polling service, in 2013, illustrates the situation:
89% of the Republican Party is composed of non-Hispanic Whites, 6% of Republicans are Hispanics, and only 2% of Republicans are Non-Hispanic Blacks.
The Democrats are more inclusive with 60% of Democrats being Non-Hispanic Whites, 22% of Democrats are Non-Hispanic Blacks and 13% of Democrats are Hispanics.
The Democrats more closely reflect the overall population of the United States which is 62.6% Non-Hispanic White, 17.1% Hispanic and Latino, and 13% Non-Hispanic African-American. The demographics of the Democratic Party more closely resemble the demographics of America.
The insularity and self-segregation of the Republican Party is reflected in its general tendency to neglect issues that are of greatest concern to Black voters, their families and their communities.
The Concerns of African-American Voters
African-Americans are concerned that they are twice as likely to be arrested and nearly four times as likely to experience force during encounters with the police than are white Americans for the same offences and under similar circumstances, according to data from the Justice Department of the United States.
They are concerned about an increasingly militarized police force patrolling their neighborhoods. This damages the relationship between the police and Black communities. Adding to police-community tension is the fact that Blacks Americans, due to neighborhood targeting, are more likely to get arrested for minor offenses than are their White American counterparts.
Blacks are concerned about increased measures to make it more difficult for them to vote, as a result of the Supreme Court decision, in 2013, to weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Above all, Blacks are concerned about racial disparities in schooling and in employment. Black students attend schools with high concentrations of inexperienced teachers in contrast to their White counterparts. Black unemployment is roughly twice as high as the rate of white unemployment no matter what level of educational attainment an African-American has achieved. In some parts of the country African-American youth unemployment is over 50%. These are issues that are rarely addressed by Republican Party candidates.
Why Progressive Democrats Scramble after African American Votes
The demographic of the United States is shifting. The Republican Party’s primary demographic, Non-Hispanic White Americans, are shrinking as a percentage in the country as a whole. When Republican political activists say, “We want our country back,” Non-White and Hispanic and Latino minorities hear this slogan as being at least partially directed against them. They hear in it the fear and anxiety of many White Americans about living in an increasingly diverse society.
This population shift is also having an effect on politics within the Democratic Party. There was a time when a Democrat would have to receive the majority of votes cast by White voters in order to win a national election. Those days are over. The last time a Democratic candidate for president won a majority of the White vote was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson captured 58% of the votes from that demographic. Since that time, Democrats have increasingly relied on heavy percentages of Non-White voters to make up the loss of their White constituency.
Jonathan Capehart, reviewing Steve Phillips’ book, Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution has Created a New American Majority, reviewed in The Washington Post, described the effect of this shift on the Democratic Party.
Phillips, who is the senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said: “Progressive people of color now comprise 23 percent of all eligible voters in America, and progressive Whites account for 28 percent of all eligible voters. The New American Majority electoral equation requires securing the support of 81 percent of people of color and 39 percent of Whites.”
According to Phillips, this trend is likely to continue. Phillips notes that the two fastest-growing groups in the United States are Asian Americans and Latinos, each of which grew by 43 percent from 2000 to 2010.
“African Americans” he says, “grew by 12.3 percent. White Americans, by contrast, grew by just 5.7 percent.” To give readers a sense of where these trends are headed Phillips adds, “Each and every day 7,261 people of color are added to the U.S. population, in contrast to White growth of 1,053 people. Roughly 150,000 young people — nearly all of them citizens — turn eighteen [old enough to vote] every month, and 42 percent of them are people of color.”
“Any discussion of the Democratic base must include acknowledgment that the base is heavily Black,” says Phillips. “Progressives cannot win [in the future] without large and enthusiastic support from people of color. White can no longer be the starting point. We must now begin with Brown, and that is why Brown is the new White,” according to Phillips.
How Democrats make their Appeal to African-American Voters
Among candidates for president within the Democratic Party former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is favoured to win the majority of African-American votes, but her lead among Blacks is by no means secure, and she knows it. Jonathan Capehart noted that she recently met with “about 50 African-American ministers, from across the country” in Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia, and “spoke plainly about the issues they and their congregants care about.”
The transcript of Clinton’s talk shows that she hit on all of the major points of concern to most Black voters. Clinton said:
“We know there are systemic inequities that haunt our economies, our laws, our schools, our prisons, our hospitals, even our water supply [in reference to the water crisis in many U.S. cities where many African-American children are exposed to lead poisoning].
“…There is something wrong when African-Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage, or when the median wealth for White families in 2013 was over $134,000 but for Black families it was $11,000.
“Or when the rate of African-American unemployment remains stubbornly high while the country as a whole is slowly doing better…
“There is something wrong when African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, charged, and sentenced to longer prison terms than White people for doing the exact same crimes, or when so many encounters between African-Americans and the police end up in humiliation or worse.
“There is something wrong when our schools are more segregated today than they were in 1968.
“And there is something deeply wrong when people in an American city like Flint, Michigan, have been drinking and bathing in poisoned water for almost two years. They told their state government, but no one could be bothered to listen….”
When Clinton delivered this address to African-American pastors she was attempting to demonstrate that she has listened and understood the concerns of Black communities. She was effective.
Why Hillary may Not do as well among African-Americans as Expected
Despite her empathetic speech at Bethel A.M.E. Church, Clinton still has problems with African-American voters. Older Blacks, particularly those who are government employees or elected officials, tend to be loyal to the Clinton political machine, but younger Blacks, especially those in academia and in the arts are far more skeptical. Blacks who are affiliated with the legacy organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, both of which were at their apex during the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago, tend to favor Clinton. Younger Blacks, affiliated with ad-hoc groups such as Black Lives Matter are keeping their distance from her.
Nigel Roberts, writing in the African American website The Root, sums up the problem this way: “Clinton has a long history of supporting issues that matter to African-Americans, but a younger generation of Black activists are much more confrontational in demanding her commitment.” This poses a real problem for Clinton because, as Nigel points out, “Clinton is unlikely to win the White House if she cannot fire up Black voters.”
Shaun King, writing in the New York Daily News, expresses a feeling among many younger African-Americans that Clinton’s campaign is taking the Black vote for granted. King writes Clinton’s strategists realize that she is faltering against the insurgent and anti-establishment candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has particularly strong appeal among young progressive White voters. The Clinton forces seem to be counting on Black voters to be the “firewall” that blocks Sanders’ momentum once the primary contests reach the Southern states, where Black voters are more numerous. King argues that the idea of an African-American firewall for Hillary should be deeply insulting to African-American voters, as it seems to take them for granted.
King writes that Clinton’s operatives are relying on a strategy where they believe that, “When it comes to South Carolina … [the first primary in a Southern state with a large percentage of African-American voters] or the primaries in the deep South or cities with large urban centers, African-Americans are going to come out in large numbers for her.”
As public intellectuals Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for The Atlantic and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, who teaches at Ohio State University point out, there is every reason for African-Americans to be wary of the Clintons. The last time they occupied the White House, sandwiched in with symbolically racially progressive legislation and public relations activities, they successfully pushed through what has arguably been some of the most destructive legislation for Black American families and communities in recent history.
Writing in The Atlantic Coates argued, “Voters, and Black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth.” Coates was referring to a myth made popular in the mid-1990s that Black teenagers had become “super-predators” who were roaming the streets of America and that only the most drastic measures, allowing maximum discretion for law enforcement officers, could restore public safety.
Michelle Alexander, in a recent status update on Facebook minced no words expressing her concern that many African-American voters seemed to be joining team Hillary without carefully scrutinizing her political record on racial matters, particularly the way that she and her husband played to the fears of White voters:
“The spectacle of large majorities of Black folks supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary races ought to be proof [that mainstream media fail to tell the truth about our political system],” wrote Alexander.
“I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of Black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done — the millions of families that were destroyed — the last time they were in the White House, thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes,” Alexander said.
African-American Voters in Search for Alternatives
With the Republican Party, by-and-large, hostile to the concerns of African-Americans and the Democrats taking Black voters for granted some potential voters have become disillusioned and are staying away from the polls while others are willing to gamble with any candidate who seems to be a credible break with the past.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a “democratic socialist”, has been gaining traction among many young African-Americans. Sanders has consistently challenged the political insiders’ club in Washington, and politicians, such as Secretary Clinton, who seem to be beholden to large Wall Street interests. Many Black voters are hesitant to give Sanders their support because they are uncertain about whether or not he really understands the problems facing African-Americans. He has spent his entire political career representing a part of the country with a very small Black population. In fact, Sanders’ home state is noted for being the “Whitest state” in the union.
As Nigel Roberts points out, “Bernie Sanders … is no doubt a staunch liberal, but does he understand the concerns of Black people?”
On the other hand, a growing number of African-American artists and intellectuals are signing onto Sanders’ class-based approach in the belief that he is more trustworthy than Clinton. Shaun King expresses the sentiments of many Black Americans when he writes, “Gone are the days when any candidate should ever assume that the Black vote is simply waiting there for them. Our votes must [now] be earned.”