Rashawn Ray, The Guardian, December 19, 2019
There is a common stereotype among black and white Americans, and it’s that black people don’t vote.
During his 2016 keynote address at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Barack Obama went so far as to say: “Even if all restrictions on voting were eliminated, African Americans would still have one of the lowest voting rates. That’s not good. That is on us.’” On the other end of the spectrum, Trump insinuated that black voters stayed home during the election. “They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out… so thank you to the African American community.”
The same message reverberated through political commentary and activism. Brando Starkey of The Undefeated wrote that, “Black people who didn’t vote let us down,” in the 2016 election. Two years later, the Detroit News’ Bankole Thompson wrote, “It is not enough to raise your fist in a political frenzy as a symbol of Black power and solidarity if you are failing to exercise the power of the ballot and not showing up at the polls.”
Despite these comments, “black people don’t vote” is not based in data: though they are only 13% of the US population, black voters are among the most stable voting bloc in politics, despite the concerted efforts to stop them. The myth, instead is rooted in an exaggerated narrative derived from Reconstruction-era stereotypes about work ethic, opportunity and culpability. Similar to how black people were the economic scapegoat for the downfall of southern states once slavery was outlawed, they also became the political scapegoat for the losses of the Republican party in the late 1800s.
After the civil war, black voter turnout boomed and elected nearly 20 black people to the House and Senate and many more to local and state positions. By December 1887, however, Congress convened without one black member in about two decades leading to “The Negroes Temporary Farewell” when black people were excluded from Congress.
As black people gained political power during Reconstruction, southern states passed stringent voter ID laws and gave black people voting literacy tests that included outlandish questions such as: how many plies are on a roll of toilet paper or how many bubbles does a bar of soap have? Some were even lynched for voting or asking for the right to vote.
Black people became disenchanted with the Republican party and some started to align with the civil rights arm of the Democratic party as Jim Crow continued to disenfranchise them. Once the 15th amendment was restored during the civil rights movement, black people instantly became a strong voting bloc for the Democratic party, particularly in the south.
When Democrats lose, however, it is the same stereotype – black people didn’t come out to vote. But in the last three presidential elections, black voter turnout was 59.6% in 2016, 66.6% in 2012, and 65.2% in 2008. The voter turnout for black people in each of these elections was higher than Latinos and Asians and higher than whites in 2012.
While it is true that black voter turnout decreased from 2012 to 2016, it does not mean that black people are to blame for the Democratic loss of the 2016 election. Twelve percent of whites who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. Considering Hillary Clinton lost by less than 11,000 votes in Michigan and 44,000 votes in Pennsylvania, these changes made a difference too.
Despite the apparent preference for voting Democrat, black voters are not a monolith. Gender, education and incarceration are factors in determining voter turnout and political party preference. Generally, women vote at higher rates than men across race, and this is true of black women too. And, while most black women with or without college degrees voted for Hillary Clinton, only 78% of black men with a college degree (16% voted for Trump) and 82% without a college degree voted Democrat (11% voted for Trump).
This data still doesn’t tell the whole story. Current barriers to voting are real, pervasive and covert. In 2013, the decision in the Shelby county v Holder case afforded people who want to disenfranchise black people the license to do so. Incriminating documents were found on the hard drive of a Republican operative known as the “gerrymandering king” who deliberately drew new political maps to dilute the black vote in North Carolina. Nearly 900 polling places were closed from 2012 to 2016, including over 400 in Texas and nearly 40 in the Carolinas.
There are also the 6.1 million people disenfranchised due to felony convictions. About 40% of this group is black. This means one of every 13 black people cannot vote due to voter disenfranchisement.
We have to challenge the stereotypes and assumptions we make about each other and recognize that real barriers to voting continue to persist but are surmountable. If we really want to create racial equity in the political process so that all Americans can truly embrace American democracy, The Voting Rights Act will be fully restored and expanded, the Shelby v Holder decision will be revisited to prevent gerrymandering, millions of returning citizens will have their voting rights restored, and election day will become a federal day of service to remove barriers related to employment.