Black Votes Matter, Because Black Lives Matter

Terrance Heath

In the 2016 presidential primary, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders can’t afford to take African-American votes for granted.

With the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary behind them, both Clinton and Sanders are vying for the African-American vote with an intensity that hasn’t been seen before. African-American voters have been in the Democratic fold long enough that candidates — and elected officials — often assume African-American votes are automatically theirs and don’t have to be earned. That’s because ever since Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” started the GOP on the road to winning elections by appealing to racism against blacks, most African-American voters don’t vote Republican.

It’s clear in this election, however, that the pursuit of black votes must be driven by valuing black lives. That has to be reflected in policies that specifically address the conditions that threaten and limit black lives.

Both Clinton and Sanders were compelled to alter the course of their campaigns after early stumbles on issues of concern to African Americans. After mishandling a confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists at Netroots Nation, Sanders infused his stump speech about populist economic issues with strong words on structural racism and inequality. Clinton recovered from an unfortunate utterance of “all lives matter” with a game-changing speech at a Harlem church, in which she said, “White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day.” She then announced a sweeping plan to eliminate discrimination and bias through a blend of new and previously proposed policies.

The candidates are moving in the right direction, but aren’t all the way there, yet. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors criticizes Democrats for “posturing for the ‘black vote’ and not explicitly saying what they will do once they’re in office to remedy systemic American racism.” Hari Ziyad, editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, predicts, “this energy will almost certainly dissipate once more” when black votes aren’t in play anymore, unless the candidates undergo “a true and radical shift in their thinking.”

That the candidates are openly competing for black votes, and speaking of disparities between blacks and whites in terms of institutional or structural racism, signifies that the earliest stages of such a “true and radical shift” in candidate’s thinking may already be in the offing.

Steve Phillips, author of “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority,” said in an interview with MSNBC it means that Clinton and Sanders both understand that the white vote is no longer up for grabs. White voters are still a part of a winning coalition for Democrats, but account for only about 39 percent of that coalition. Phillips argues that 50 years of population growth among people of color has created a new American majority of progressive people of color (23 percent of eligible voters) and progressive whites (28 percent of eligible voters). “In order to win … the proven formula is you have to inspire and galvanize voters of color,” Phillips said.

Phillips may have a point. The old pattern of courting black votes while promising as little as possible, and delivering even less, is what Democrats did for decades, when conventional wisdom was that Democratic victory depended upon peeling as many white working-class voters (the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s) as they could away from Republicans. Courting black votes with solutions that applied specifically to problems in black communities was thought too risky, as it might offend white working-class voters.

The shrinking vote share of the white working-class means Democrats no longer have to worry as much about winning back the “Reagan Democrats” — especially those who have morphed into “Trump Democrats.” It also means that Republicans can’t win with white votes alone. While the GOP seems determined to alienate the very voters of color it needs to survive, that doesn’t mean Democrats can take black votes for granted. African Americans won’t vote Republican if they’re dissatisfied with Democrats. They’ll simply stay home, or at least opt out of presidential politics that have nothing to offer them.

The challenge for Democrats moving forward is to engage the rising American electorate — the multicultural coalition of progressive people of color and progressive whites that twice carried Barack Obama to victory. Incorporating white working-class votes into that coalition, while no longer essential to Democrats’ margin of victory, is still a worthy aim. The “fusion politics” of the Moral Mondays movement led by Rev. Dr. William Barber offers Democrats a successful model for uniting just such a diverse coalition under a coherent, cohesive, progressive moral message.

Democrats are beginning to understand that black votes matter to their margin of victory. But to earn black votes and bring more black voters to the polls, they will have to prove that black votes matter to them, because black lives matter to them. Democrats don’t win without black votes. For Democrats, that means articulating policies that specifically address the needs and concerns of black communities, and then fighting to deliver on those promises after winning.

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