Astead W. Herndon, New York Times, August 25, 2020
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn and the recent protests over racial inequality, the Black men of Milwaukee’s North Side had experience with crises converging all at once.
In one ZIP code of mostly Black residents — 53206 — more than half of the children live in poverty. The neighborhood records terrible health outcomes, according to experts. And among Black men, one study estimated that from 2000 to 2017, about 42 percent of those ages 25 to 34 were incarcerated or on probation.
The men in the area who are eligible to vote can expect long lines and strict voter identification laws at the ballot box. Still, many vote consistently, calling it an electoral act of defiance in an imperfect democracy.
“I’ve voted in every election,” said Charles Huley, 75, a church elder who lives on the North Side. “What changes is who I can convince to come with me.”
For Democrats, who rely on Black voters to power their electoral advantages in America’s urban centers, the difference between good and great Black voter turnout is often dependent on how many Black men go to the polls.
Black women are the party’s most loyal demographic base — often referred to as its backbone — but motivated Black male voters were a crucial distinction between former President Barack Obama’s record-setting Black turnout in 2008 and 2012 and the diminished performance of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In states like Wisconsin, which was decided in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes, that dip was one of the causes of a Democratic night to forget, proof that the nominee had problems motivating the base, not just among swing voters.
In deep-blue Milwaukee County, where statewide Democrats run up the score to offset more conservative rural areas, Mrs. Clinton had one of the largest drop-offs in raw votes of any county in the country, earning more than 40,000 fewer votes than Mr. Obama did four years earlier. Pew Research estimated that in 2016, 64 percent of eligible Black women said they had voted compared with 54 percent of eligible Black men, a much larger gender gap than for white or Hispanic voters.
Four years later, as Joseph R. Biden Jr. seeks to build the coalition Mrs. Clinton could not, he operates with several personal and structural advantages.
In interviews with a dozen Black men in Milwaukee during the recent Democratic National Convention, and with several of the state’s most visible Black male elected officials, they predicted that Black turnout in November would look more like it did for Mr. Obama’s victories than for Mrs. Clinton’s loss, fueled by a leap in enthusiasm from Black men.
Little of this is because of Mr. Biden’s personal appeal, they said, though he benefits from his close relationship with Mr. Obama and an absence of the sexism that many women running for office face.
The interviewees isolated other, more important factors: the constant chaos of President Trump’s administration, a backlash to the president’s demonization of minorities to win over white suburbanites and even Mr. Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate.
The die is not cast, however, and Mrs. Clinton’s fate still holds warning signs for Mr. Biden and his campaign. They are both Washington insiders who struggled with younger Black voters in the primary — a key demographic in Mr. Obama’s general-election coalition — but won older Black voters handily en route to the nomination.
Throughout her race, Mrs. Clinton faced skepticism for her association with the 1990s expansion of the federal prison system, an overhaul that Mr. Biden helped craft. He has recently embraced the language of acknowledging systemic racism, and released a sweeping policy meant to close the racial wealth gap and improve education in Black communities. Still, as with Mrs. Clinton, the matter of trust remains.
In November, it could be Mr. Biden’s improvements with white voters throughout the state — not his prowess with motivating infrequent Black voters — that powers his electoral success.
Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have zeroed in on the importance of Black male voters in swing states like Wisconsin, and have made some concerted efforts to pry them away from Democrats.
Their efforts are twofold: to argue that Black voters’ loyalty to Democrats has not been rewarded — effectively asking them, in Mr. Trump’s famous words last election cycle, “What do you have to lose?” And to focus less on persuading Black men to vote for Republicans and more on creating an environment for low turnout over all.
In a leaked audio recording recently published by Politico, Mr. Trump said days before his inauguration: “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great.”
In recent weeks, several political organizations have announced initiatives targeted at improving the political process in Black communities, and at motivating less frequent Black voters to come to the polls. More Than a Vote, a collective of athletes headlined by the basketball star LeBron James, said it would invest millions to try to recruit poll workers in Black communities. The N.A.A.C.P. announced a campaign called “Black Voices Change Lives,” which will seek to expand peer-to-peer organizing in Black communities. Its stated target is a 5 percent increase in Black voter turnout in the general election from 2016.