Black male voters are tired of being taken for granted
In these closing days of the 2020 presidential campaign, a remarkable and surprising measure of campaign attention is falling upon African American voters — specifically a small and typically overlooked segment: young Black men.
Consider, for example, President Trump released last month his “Platinum Plan for Black America,” which campaign officials promised to provide $500 billion in capital to create 3 million new jobs in Black communities and eliminate long-standing disparities in health care and education among Black Americans. And, to sweeten the deal for voters to reelect the Republican president, whom polls show lagging far behind his Democratic challenger, Trump pledged to make Juneteenth a federal, national holiday.
For his part, Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, flush with campaign cash, is flooding television airways with campaign commercials that leave no doubt about its intended audience — Black men.
The final push for votes in a presidential campaign tends to be laser-focused on getting out the vote among two groups — loyal and partisan supporters and persuadable last-minute “swing” or undecided voters. Black voters tend to be overlooked as closers in the last days, viewed largely as lock-boxed Democratic voters.
But such a view overlooks the diversity among Black Americans. In our Black Swing Voter Project, a study conducted earlier this summer, a group of American University colleagues and I reveal that Black voters are not as loyal to the Democratic Party or its candidates as so many political observers and pundits imagine. Rather, they are a set of richly complex swing voters who oscillate between voting for Democrats and not voting at all. This is especially true for young and male Black voters.
For those Black Americans born between 1990 and 2002, who are relatively new to the voting booth, the choice of political participation may be a moot point. Unlike their elders, who came up with fresh memories of civil rights activism, younger Black Americans aren’t willing to tolerate voting for the lesser of two evils. They would just as soon stay home than compromise on their idealism.
To be sure, their preference is to participate in the nation’s civic life, but that can be subordinated to their lack of trust in the political system to do right by them or their community.
Such a revelation makes the votes of young Black Americans more of a juicy target in 2020 than it has been in recent history. This year’s presidential campaign has been waged against a backdrop of a domestic shutdown of businesses and social activities due to a global pandemic, widespread national and international demonstrations and street protests against a White police officer’s killing of George Floyd and other brutal acts of widely reported police abuses against Black Americans. And, not to be ignored, the racially charged behavior of one presidential candidate and the widely debated role of another candidate in criminal justice reforms that severely impacted Black Americans play a role in shaping the views of Black voters.
The media, pollsters and the candidates are taking segmented preferences and opinions of Black voters more seriously due to issues of race and systemic racism. The campaign, party and candidate that wins the Black swing vote stands to be in power well into the foreseeable future.
While progressive Democrats are better poised to appeal to this segment of voters, it’s not at all assured that they will or can do so. Young Black Americans told us they will not be taken for granted simply because their parents and grandparents vote for Democrats. Specifically, young Black Americans tend to view Democrats much less favorably — and Republicans more favorably — than their older peers.
One surprising finding keeps popping up across these studies, which helps explain why the campaigns are focusing novel attention on young Black men. Unlike their male counterparts, Black women not only vote at higher rates than Black men, but they are also the most loyal of all Democratic voters. In 2016, Trump won about 14 percent of the Black male vote while his support among Black women was nearly invisible. Indeed, current polls suggest a similar finding as Biden is the overwhelming choice among Black women and Black men far more receptive to consider voting for the president.
Ice Cube, a Los Angeles-based rapper, provoked headline-grabbing attention when he appeared to collaborate with the Trump administration on its Platinum Plan for Black America. Though he disavowed working with the administration and hasn’t endorsed the president’s reelection, an impression was cast. If not an official Trump endorser, he was at best being used by the Trump campaign to cleave off marginal Black support.
For Trump, this is all to the good, effectively creating a “fog of war” effect that keeps him in the headlines and keeps Democrats awake every night until Election Day. But let’s be very clear and cautious about what impact this truly has on the election. Trump’s support among Black Americans is underwater, yet consistent over time with Black support for GOP presidential candidates. In our study, conducted in early July and before Harris joined the Biden ticket, we found 66 percent support for Biden and only 7 percent for Trump among the 1,200 respondents surveyed in six key swing states.
Black voter support for Democratic nominee Barack Obama swelled in 2008 and remained atypically high in 2012, but it reverted to the norm in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.
Still, the outsized support for Trump among young Black men — relative to the larger Black community — is a curious political paradox. In our study, we found that 79 percent of young black Americans say Trump is a racist, 74 percent said he is “incompetent” and 73 percent disagree with most of his policies. Yet, many of them told us in focus groups that they admired how he “shows strength and defies the establishment.”
By this measure, young Black men are rationally responding to their experience within of an American political system that for all of their lives has been either hostile or, more charitably stated, indifferent to their concerns that the political deck is stacked against them and that politicians — Democratic or Republican — just don’t care about them.
Sam Fulwood III is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a fellow at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, where he conducted a study of Black swing voters in key battleground states. @SamFulwood.
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