Joe Biden’s recent “you ain’t black” comments sparked on The Breakfast Club a new round of discourse surrounding whether or not the black agenda is best served by the Democratic Party and how to leverage the black community’s political power. There is often a critique of black voters who “vote blue no matter who.”
However, this critique, though well-intentioned, can often unintentionally cast black voters as blindly following the Democratic Party. The “no matter who” part of the critique is a misreading of black communal political agency, and leaves out both historical and current political factors that cause most Black folk to choose between two imperfect options: voting for Democrats and not voting at all.
Black voters came to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats largely between the New Deal and Civil Rights Era. Social welfare programs, Civil Rights legislation, and the Great Migration of black people from southern to northern and western cities caused black voters to leave the Republican Party while the same factors compelled white conservatives to leave the Democratic Party.
Books like “Asymmetric Politics” by Matt Grossman and David Hopkins, “The Great Alignment” by Alan I. Abramowitz, “Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics” by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Senand and “Steadfast Democrats” by Chryl Laird and Ismail White detail how African Americans came to see the party representing a coalition of interest groups as more reflective of their political needs than the political vehicle for conservatism and white racial resentment.
Historically and at the present, American politics has too often put black people in the unenviable position of having to cast their vote as harm-reducers first, share-holders in democracy second. Like any interest group, the black community has specific things it wants and needs (housing, jobs, infrastructure investment, education funding, justice reform, police accountability, health services, etc.). However, black people have a heightened special interest in trying to destroy or at lease diminish anti-blackness. They have to perceive, understand, evade, transform and subvert the racial politics of America with a level of clarity and specificity that most groups simply to do not.
Thinking of the parties through the prism of “lesser of two evils,” the Democratic Party at least virtue-signals that it is aligned with black communal needs. On the other hand, the Republican Party has ideological commitments (“big government spending on social welfare programs is bad”) that compels it to go against funding all the things African Americans need. Often, Republicans are not just unresponsive to black political needs, but are openly hostile to it. We could look a list of examples, but let’s use the most racially-charged one: welfare.
There’s a pervasive conservative idea that putting people on welfare makes them lazy (to oversimplify it). The argument is that it is unfair to drain resources for taxpayers with jobs and getting people off welfare help them in the long run. Without going deep into the racial politics that undergird this (i.e. there are many studies which show that when Americans, across the political spectrum, see a policy helping black people, support for it goes down), think about the material reality of a poor African American who lives in a neighborhood with high poverty and low job prospects. Republicans are essentially trying to make the case to this black mother, father, family, etc. that giving them less money is better.
Take both race and legitimate ideological differences out of it for a moment: what rationale person concerned with the most immediate needs of food and shelter would accept this argument?
On other issues, many prominent conservative media outlets, pundits and politicians accuse Black people of “pulling the race card” and of having a victim mentality when they mention disparities in criminal justice, police accountability, environmental racism, employment, school-funding, etc. For too many conservatives, a conversation ends when the word “racism” enters. For most black voters, you can’t have a political conversation without discussing the effects of racism. Conservatives are more likely to see racism against whites as the dominant form of bigotry. For most black voters, this is, to put it bluntly, completely absurd. From Donald Trump (Obama’s birth certificate, Good people on both sides, Mexicans are rapists, Islam hates us, shit-hole countries) to Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller to David Duke to Arthur Jones, the almost exclusively white party with “not one racist bone in its body” has a very bad optics problem when it comes to black voters. Trickledown economics, “The Party of Lincoln” or “did you know the KKK were Democrats?” rhetoric is unconvincing to black folk who see what the current GOP stands for and against and weigh this against their beliefs, morals, and circumstances.
The irony is that there are a few cultural advantages that the GOP has if it truly wanted to court black voters. As professor Michael Eric Dyson said on The View, the GOP doesn’t realize that “Black people are morally conservative even if they’re politically progressive.” Along cultural and religious lines, many African Americans are more conservative than their liberal peers. The GOP may actually be in a better position to implement criminal justice reform and welfare programs (though obviously it is generally against the latter). They would have bipartisan support from progressives, liberals and moderates would feel at ease for not being attacked on Fox News for being “soft on crime,” and white conservatives would be less inclined to negatively racialize policies if it comes from Republicans (since when these policies come from Democrats, the right responds with Willie Horton and welfare-queen rhetoric).
To be clear, Democratic Party is far from perfect. For example, many Democrats like the Clintons, Joe Biden, local leaders and even Black community figures supported a “war on crime” policy agenda that was disproportionately harsh on the black community. There have been many cases in which the black agenda has not been served by voting blue, with Democrats over-promising and under-delivering, but also not showing up until there is an election. We also should not begrudge the many black folk who choose not to vote. While it is untrue in reality, the perception that the two parties are indistinguishable and the outcomes are indiscernible is often a result of demoralization and marginalization. No matter who is in office, there are many in the African American community that don’t see their material realities change no matter who is in office. Charlemagne Tha God is someone who speaks to this segment of the population.
But when those black folk who are politically engaged look into the political landscape, they see a multi-racial coalition of liberal and progressive politicians fighting for a living wage, increased funding for education, better hospitals, labor unions, progressive states attorneys working to stem mass incarceration, electing the first black president, saying Black Lives Matter. This doesn’t absolve the Democratic Party of the ways in which it has let black voters down. But the fact that African Americans are the most loyal demographic on the left is a reflection of their acumen to access their political situation and where their interests best align. It doesn’t mean they are sheep.
In the words of great American author James Baldwin, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” If you want to argue that black people are misunderstanding what party because aligns with their political interests, there is a space for that. But we should assert and center black political autonomy. A high percentage of black citizens look at the two parties and (accurately, I would argue) come to the conclusion that Democrats are at least not as hostile to black people and are the better of two imperfect options; and that voting for Republicans is not only not a choice, but would be empowering policies that hurt their communities. It is a choice between moving forward an inch and moving back a mile; between a broken promise and punch in the face.
In short, Black folk vote for who they think best reflects their nuanced political interests, just like any other demographic. If the GOP took the anti-black racism within their party seriously (or frankly, just admitted it exists), we would likely see more Black Republicans much sooner than later. In the most cynical sense, the relationship many black voters have with the Democratic Party is “we aren’t friends, we just work together.” Black people have and will continue to choose the party that they gauge is more aligned with their communal needs. When this changes, they will change accordingly.
There is no “no matter who.”