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Friday, November 22, 2019

Failing to Decipher Black Voters

This group is multifaceted. Understanding that is key.

Opinion Columnist

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 “ By Charles M. BlowNov. 21, 2019

There was quite a bit of talk about the black vote and the black community at Wednesday night’s presidential debate.

Maybe that’s because they were in Atlanta, the majority-black capital of the South. But it is also, I am sure, because black voters have played and continue to play a crucial role in who gets the Democratic nomination.

Joe Biden’s front-runner status — and very likely his entire candidacy — is being kept aloft by black voters. Pete Buttigieg, who has surged in the first two states — Iowa and New Hampshire — is hitting a wall in the third state, South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic primary voters are black.

Furthermore, the three African-American candidates — Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and former Gov. Deval Patrick — aren’t the favorite candidates of African-American voters. At the same time, the more progressive Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have failed to lure significant black support with their views of structural change.

I believe deeply that much of the Democratic field is still struggling — and failing — to decipher what animates the bulk of black voters. As much as I believe in polling and its ability to uncover information, I don’t believe that the way black people are polled is sufficient and comprehensive.

As I’ve mentioned before, the black vote is multifaceted, like any group of voters. Young black voters see things differently from older ones. There is a slight but statistically significant difference in the way black women vote compared with black men. And black voters in the South see things slightly different from the way black voters in the North and West see things.

Let’s focus here on black voters in the Deep South states, those along the Black Belt, because that’s where black voting power is strongest in the primaries.

Specifically, I’m talking about Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina. (I’m from Louisiana, and trying to define the Deep South is a subject that can spark a bar fight. I include North Carolina, while many do not. I do not include Florida or Texas. Geographically they are Deep South, but culturally they are different.)

In any case, understanding the South here is important. Black people in America have always lived mostly in the South and continue to do so. Even during American slavery, a majority of free blacks lived in the South, not the North. This was true in every census from 1790 to 1860.

According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, there are 1,200 majority-black towns and cities in America, about 1,000 of which are in the South. And the number of majority-black cities is on the rise.

In addition, almost all of the largest cities in the Deep South, as I have defined it, are majority-black with a black mayor.

Speaking of the South more broadly, every one of the top 10 states with the highest percent of black population is in the South.

I point all of this out because I believe that people’s relationship to power informs the way they see national politics in general and presidential politics in particular.

White working-class voters in the Rust Belt behave one way because they feel that they are losing power. Black voters in the South behave differently because they feel that they are gaining it.

These Southern black voters are in control of the power structure most intimately affecting their lives — local government. However, they often live in states controlled by white Republicans. That is often the most important conflict. The federal government has often been the instrument to prevent or relieve state oppression.

The other thing to remember is that this rise in municipal black power and black self-determination in Southern cities is only a few decades old, dating back to about the 1970s.

Those voters may be less excited by a national revolution because they are living through a very real revolution on the ground. They are feeling their power in cities and increasingly in statewide races. But in presidential elections, their voices are drowned out on the state level — other than Barack Obama winning North Carolina in 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried my Deep South states since the 1990s.

As such, until that changes, voting in presidential elections can feel mostly symbolic for blacks in the South. The Democratic candidate won’t carry their state. If that person wins the presidency, it will be because of people in faraway places.

But during the primaries, those Southern black voters have a chance to make their voices heard, to reward loyalty and fidelity, to support the candidates they feel they know and to spurn those they feel they don’t.

Big plans mean less and can ring hollow. What James Baldwin wrote in his essay “Journey to Atlanta” rings true:

Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives.

For these voters, many of the candidates are simply offering promises far beyond their ability to deliver, no matter how good the promises sound or how good they would be if kept.

The promises sparkle during campaign season the same way sunlight plays on the water’s surface: It is an attractive illusion.

Black people in the South are experiencing a surge of real power and the ability to enact real change. Democratic candidates have to talk to them like the people they are: strong and pushing, not weak and begging.”

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