Why black voters matter, and the black vote doesn’t
Once again America is engaged in selecting a president. And once again the importance of “the black vote” is being highlighted as the key for Democratic candidates and the overall chances for defeating Republicans and Trump. For Pete Buttigieg who is polling at less than 3% amongst African-Americans the narrative is he needs to address the problem quickly, “to have any hope of contending for the Democratic nomination.” For Biden the black vote is seen as his ‘ace up the sleeve’ considering polls indicate he is the, “overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination among black Americans.” Even Bernie Sanders is caught up in the narrative of the African-American vote as many believe his only real chance of defeating Biden rests in moving African-Americans to his camp.
But throughout the modern history of American politics there is a truth that these narratives have covered up: black voters matter, but the black vote doesn’t. Black voters matter because of the traditional contest between conservative and liberal white voters. “Black voters make up about 20% of all Democratic voters… about the same percentage of Democrats who identify themselves as ‘very liberal’.” Interestingly, that number is also about the same as the number of white Democrats with a college degree. It is the connection between black voters and sympathetic white liberals that represents the importance of African-Americans within our political system. Black voters matter because of the issues that they represent, not their practical ability to influence and sway elections.
Throughout America’s political history elections have most often centered on issues of economic and social inequality in America. Because of the history of African-Americans within the country we’ve become the primary symbol of those issues for politicians on both sides. The result is that the African-American vote matters because it is an indicator of what liberal white Americans should be concerned with in their broader promotion of equal rights and social advancement. The African-American vote is the most direct form of validation for liberal white Americans who are concerned with injustice and inequality. It is also this relationship that perpetuates the narrative that conservative white Americans are racist. It is the direct linkage between historical discrimination against African-Americans and broader concerns over inequality in America that symbolizes the battle lines between liberal and conservative white Americans.
As much as black voters have often been crucial in determining the viability of liberal candidates, the black vote has never decided a major election in America. When you look at the historical impact of the black vote on elections it quickly becomes apparent that by ourselves, we do not directly impact election outcomes. Mississippi has historically had the largest proportion of African-Americans of any state in the country at a little over 30%. Yet, if Mike Espy were to be elected to the U.S. Senate this fall it would be the first time an African-American has represented the state since Reconstruction 139 years ago. Historically, securing the majority of black votes in America has in no way guaranteed victory in a national election. Barack Obama (80% of the black primary vote in 2008) and Bill Clinton (70% in 1992) are the exceptions, not the rule. Hillary Clinton received 80% of the black vote in 2016, John Kerry and Al Gore both “dominated the black vote”, and Jesse Jackson won more than 75% of the black vote in his two bids for the presidency… and all of them lost.
The reality is that the black vote has only ever made a difference when there have been significant divisions amongst moderate white voters on crucial socioeconomic issues. Because Blacks have historically been the victims of discrimination, underdevelopment, and inequality in America we’ve become the target of any who wish to champion improvement of those aspects of our society. It is also why most of the problems with gerrymandering, voter fraud, and limitation on voting rights have centered on African-American communities. As much as liberals have attempted to champion African-American causes at the national level, conservatives have worked tirelessly to limit the impact of the African-American vote at the local level. And to be clear, this has been the case regardless of whether the Democrats or the Republicans were the party of conservatism in the country.
The African-American vote has always been an endorsement, never a practical part of America’s election landscape. This is why we are more focused on Sanders’ fight with Joe Biden for the black vote then we are the fact that all of the African-American candidates that were running for the Democratic nomination are now out of the race. Biden is not looking to South Carolina and its high proportion of black voters as a signal that the black vote could carry him to the nomination and the White House. Its importance lies in what it would represent to the much larger percentage of moderate white voters relative to Biden’s credentials as a champion of social issues. Just as the African-American identity is dominated by our struggles with being integrated into the country’s culture, the African-American vote is founded on the existence of white guilt over that struggle.
In the end, most white Americans see the African-American existence as monolithic. We are not a diverse community with different political perspectives, class identities, or social power. Conservative or liberal, most see the African-American as underprivileged and underdeveloped with the primary distinction being whether white Americans should accept some responsibility for those conditions. And while the African-American community has in fact become more diverse across all those areas, the narrative has evolved to the point that even if we are not directly underprivileged or underdeveloped, fighting inequality is always assumed to be the primary focus of African-American political goals. Whether it is Biden proclaiming African-Americans are, “the single most loyal constituency I’ve ever had,” or Trump believing he’s the champion of African-Americans because of lower unemployment, this understanding of African-American politics is alive and well today.
Unfortunately, these realities will not change until we separate the concept of inequality in this country from the concept of being an African-American. It is only when we can honestly say being African-American is no longer defined by struggle that our political involvement will be extensions of our power as voters, rather than our needs as African-Americans. Until then the African-American voter and vote will continue to be an endorsement passed back and forth between liberal and conservative politicians who only need to take notice at election time.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.