Assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College
Especially in the half century since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, voting for Democrats has become a political norm among African Americans—a norm that individuals in black social spaces actively push one another to follow. But every so often, the Republican Party tries to break African Americans’ near-monolithic support for the opposite side. In the past two weeks, Donald Trump, whose approval rating among black voters is particularly low, has made a conspicuous push for their backing.
During the Super Bowl, the Trump campaign aired an ad featuring a 64-year-old black woman whose prison sentence the president commuted in 2018. In his State of the Union speech, he reminded viewers of his support for criminal-justice reforms and claimed low unemployment rates for black workers as one of his administration’s economic successes. His invited guests included African Americans from all walks of life—including a formerly homeless man who overcame drug addiction, a former Tuskegee airman, and a fourth-grade girl to whom Trump awarded a scholarship during the speech.
That efforts such as these have not yet yielded greater black support appears to puzzle some on the Trump team. But political solidarity has been a crucial political asset of black Americans during a long struggle against racial injustice, and a few symbolic gestures or policy initiatives won’t win significant black support for Republicans.
Trump and his advisers are overlooking the real reasons African Americans have been so steadfast in favoring Democrats. If Republicans want black votes, their strategy should be simple: End racial segregation—which not only leads to societal inequities that most African Americans strongly deplore, but also reinforces the social structures and conventions by which black adults encourage one another to vote Democratic.
In our book, Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, we track how support for the party of Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama has become linked to the very notion of group empowerment among African Americans. While many overt forms of racial discrimination are illegal, years of official and de facto segregation have produced neighborhoods, communities, and schools in which black populations are heavily concentrated together and largely isolated from their fellow Americans. In our research, we analyzed residential data from the 2000 U.S. census, zeroing in on the 10 cities with the largest black populations. We found that in those cities, on average, 72 of every 100 people with whom a black person interacts would also be black—perhaps a surprising finding when African Americans were only 13 percent of the U.S. population that year. Because of racial isolation, most black and white Americans have few opportunities for meaningful cross-racial social interaction.
Our research also turned up evidence of how these relationships affect political partisanship. We analyzed the 2013 American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. In the survey, black respondents reported that the social networks where they “discuss important matters” are 84 percent black. (The social networks of white respondents were 94 percent white.) Strikingly, 96 percent of black respondents with all-black social networks identify as Democrats, compared with only 71 percent among those with no black friends or associates.
Solidarity politics has deep roots among black Americans. Slave revolts and efforts to escape from plantations required group cohesion. After the Civil War, newly enfranchised black men supported Republicans en masse, believing that Abraham Lincoln’s party would protect the freedom of African Americans. The emergence of the Jim Crow system bound African Americans together once again, this time in the need to survive racial terror and resist legalized segregation. The organized protest of the civil-rights movement was the fruit of that collective effort.
A constant threat to solidarity is the possibility that some group members will decide not to abide by the group’s consensus. In other words, they might defect. That possibility has multiplied as African Americans have become more diverse in their economic standing. Yet racial segregation—the very phenomenon that created a need for African American political unity—also allows the group to censure defectors. Because of spatial segregation, many African Americans have social relationships almost exclusively with other black people. As a result, these black individuals then find themselves compelled to either accept the dominant political beliefs of the racial group or risk loss of status within these largely black social networks.
During the 2012 election campaign, we conducted an experiment in which we went to a historically black college and prompted black students to imagine we were giving them $100 to donate to Obama or his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. The students were told that they could divide the money up however they wanted. (No money actually changed hands.) Students were randomly assigned to three different groups. In the first group, students were just asked what they wanted to do with the money. As we expected, the overwhelming majority donated it all to Obama—in accordance with the partisan norm among African Americans.
We told members of the second group that, if they gave to Romney, they would get to keep some money. Indeed, the more they gave to Romney, the more they would get to keep. With this monetary incentive, many more students gave to Romney. Even students who reported high levels of black group consciousness were willing to defect from the partisan norm once money was involved. The third group was offered the same incentive to support Romney; its members were also told that we would have to publish how they donated in the historically black college’s student newspaper. What we observed in response was the phenomenon we describe as “racialized social constraint.” Contemplating public exposure, these students opted not to take the monetary incentive and instead gave the money to Obama at levels that were comparable to the donations of the first group. Awareness that others would bear witness to their defection from the group norm was enough to alter individuals’ behavior.
The same social pressures apply outside brick-and-mortar forums. Black Twitter, a large network of African American users of that social-media platform, has become a prime venue for challenging defiance of group political expectations. Several high-profile black celebrities have felt its power firsthand. In 2017, the African American talk-show host and comedian Steve Harvey was chastised on Black Twitter for his decision to meet with President-elect Trump before his inauguration. As news about the meeting spread, Harvey became a trending topic on Twitter. The backlash was so severe that Harvey decided to apologize on his morning radio show and later indicated that he would not be attending Trump’s inauguration at the insistence of his wife, who is also African American.
The rapper Kanye West might appear better positioned than Harvey to defect from black political norms without paying a high social cost. His wife and in-laws are not black, he lives in a predominantly white community, and he’s very rich. Still, West’s insinuation that slavery was a choice and his appearances in a Make America Great Again hat have prompted a vehement response on Black Twitter and in the black press. West has since apologized for his slavery comments and distanced himself from “Blexit,” an effort to persuade black people to leave the Democratic Party.
Pressures like those that West and Harvey experienced are easily dismissed as a stifling of dissent and individual initiative. Still, a collective decision-making process is hardly unique to African Americans; every group tries to act together in some form. African Americans just have a much better reason to do so. The costs of abandoning political solidarity include a loss of leverage for racial equality. In the face of that risk, Trump’s guest list at the State of the Union is unlikely to change many minds.
If the Republican Party wants black Americans to stop voting for Democrats by such huge margins, it would need to target the racial segregation that undergirds black political solidarity. African Americans fully integrated into racially diverse social networks will be more likely to engage in political behavior that turns more on their individual economic and religious interests. Full integration would put the expectations of other black people at more of a distance; in mixed spaces, racialized social constraint would decline. The result would be a slow but steady diversification of black partisanship. It would also mean that, after banding together for so long, black Americans have finally gained equal access to the opportunities that they have long been denied.