Since the years following the New Deal, when the majority of Black voters left the Republican Party, Black men and women have turned out in spectacular numbers for Democrats in presidential elections. No other racial group has been as consistent for the Dems. This year’s contest was no different; roughly 90 percent of this bloc cast ballots for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris. In the words of the activist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, “Black people won this election.”
But in the past four years, numerous Black Republican figures, as well as a handful of Black celebrities, have endorsed President Donald Trump or expressed a willingness to work with his administration. Almost all of these endorsements have come from men, reflecting an on-the-ground truth: 12 percent of Black men voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, while just 6 percent of Black women did the same, according to the AP VoteCast survey. Considering that the Democrats’ dependence on Black voters is only growing with each election, the party can’t afford to ignore the diversity of opinion that exists within this bloc, particularly between women and men.
The two concepts—that Black men are among the most loyal backers of the Democratic Party and that they are more likely than Black women to vote for Republican candidates—are not mutually exclusive. And they reveal significant insights into differences between Black voters, differences that aren’t built on the Trump campaign’s superficial outreach efforts. Many Black men who voted for Trump did so in spite of Trump. For this small but intriguing group of voters, this election was a homecoming of sorts: a return to their long-standing, pre-Obama relationship with the Republican Party.
The number of Black men supporting the GOP in 2020 may be disorienting for some, especially because Trump has been outspoken in his disdain for a number of issues of concern to this bloc—particularly the Movement for Black Lives. But men have been the drivers of Black support for the GOP for nearly a century, as my research on Black Republicans has shown. And although some Black women have embraced Republican politics, they are still the demographic group least likely to support Republican candidates.
The election and reelection of President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 are the only points in recent history where we’ve seen Black men’s support for the GOP bottom out. In 2008, for instance, 95 percent of Black male voters cast ballots for the nation’s first Black president, according to exit polls. But as the glow of the initial Obama years faded, some Black men drifted back into the Republican Party, while others joined anew.
Based on my findings, this attraction to the GOP can be partially explained by the fact that Black men tend to prioritize presidential candidates’ individual attributes, including race, personality, and experience. That’s why a small subset of these voters saw something attractive in Trump, regardless of his racism: His hypermasculine, anti-establishment, pro-capitalist rhetoric compelled them to support him. Given that most Black men believe that both the Democratic and Republican Parties are racist, it makes sense that some of them respond enthusiastically to broader GOP cues that stress the failure of American institutions. Republicans are adept at cynically exploiting a fractured political system that many Black men, irrespective of their politics, believe doesn’t have their best interests in mind.
In the Richard Nixon era, for example, Black newspapers complained bitterly of “Black men singing” the gospels of the GOP. That any Black person would support a man who represented the “evils of white America—racism, capitalism, treachery, imperialism, arrogance, and deceit” was shocking, wrote the editors of the New York Amsterdam News in the early 1970s. And yet, approximately 23 percent of Black male voters did just that in the 1972 presidential election. Those Black men who cast ballots for Nixon did so primarily for financial reasons, pointing to the president’s economic agenda and his emphasis on entrepreneurship and “Black capitalism.” These voters also expressed a hard-line belief in the idea of two-party competition, arguing that an exit from the Democratic Party would force both parties to compete for Black votes.
Black men dropped out significantly from the GOP with Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency in the ’80s, but he still managed to grab about 13 percent of their votes. Similar to Nixon’s efforts, Reagan’s campaign focused heavily on financial matters, advocating for a “Black-owned, Black-operated philosophy,” and lobbying for states’ rights as a means for Black communities to “take back” their neighborhoods through cooperative economics. Reagan’s team focused on shifting the political dialogue away from conversations about race and racism, instead highlighting preexisting tensions between Black voters and Democratic politicians. The goal was to denounce them as ineffective and indifferent to Black voters, while simultaneously highlighting aspirational but vague ideas about tax cuts, unregulated capitalism, economic growth, and jobs in Black neighborhoods. Though these political overtures appeared to represent community interests, voter enthusiasm for them reflected a kind of individualism rooted in exploiting economic gains for one’s self. In actuality, the majority of Black voters saw their life outcomes worsen during the Reagan era. Still, the president managed to maintain a certain level of support from some Black men.
By comparison, Black women tend to reject Republican propositions. Historically, as the Brennan Center for Justice’s Theodore R. Johnson and I have argued, this group has been resistant to GOP appeals precisely because their political decision making is rooted in policies that benefit the public interest. For Black women, voting is an act of collectivism: They vote as an impenetrable bloc, with slight variations due to class, socioeconomic background, and geographic region. The AP VoteCast survey estimates that 93 percent of Black women supported the Biden-Harris ticket, a gendered distinction that far exceeds the parameters of any one presidential election cycle (they also voted in fewer numbers than Black men in the Nixon and Reagan contests: 14 percent, then 9 percent and 7 percent, respectively).
This doesn’t mean that Black women have embraced their chosen party without critique. Like Black men, they express feelings of being left behind by American political institutions. But these women largely focus their energies on transforming their relationship with the Democratic Party, pushing reformist agendas, or trying to make the institution more radical, as opposed to leaving the party altogether. This year, for example, despite little support from the Democratic National Committee, Black women helmed grassroots organizations such as Fair Fight Action, the New Georgia Project, and Black Voters Matter that were ultimately responsible for the Biden-Harris victories in swing states.
Furthermore, when Black women view a policy as harmful or racist to the community, they’ll reject that initiative, regardless of the personal advantages it could yield. A clear-eyed example of this is the way that a higher percentage of Black women—including those who are wealthy and upper-middle class—were unmoved by Trump’s economic initiatives aimed at Black communities, such as the Platinum Plan (which was touted by the rapper Ice Cube). Many Black women view these proposals as disingenuous, light on detail and implementation, and ultimately ineffective at combatting systemic racism for the collective community, even though on an individual level, something like rampant tax cuts might actually benefit them.
Despite this, the 2020 election has shown us that even in the midst of chaos and record levels of voter turnout, old trends have a way of reestablishing themselves. As Democrats look to the future, they’d be wise to reinvigorate their relationship with the backbone of their party. Highlighting the racism of certain Republican candidates has never been enough to guarantee Black votes, and it’s certainly not a viable long-term outreach strategy when Black audiences are growing more disillusioned with both parties.