The 'New Look' of the Post-Obama Electorate

African Americans are converging around an abundance of issues, wanting to be heard and employing new strategies to achieve it.

President Obama greets people after speaking at a campaign rally for Governor Martin O'Malley in Bowie, Maryland, October 7, 2010. (Susan Walsh / AP)

At 8 years old, I nervously stood in a third-grade classroom listening to the two black women standing over me. One was Lillie Costin, not only the first black teacher I ever had, but the first black teacher I’d ever seen. The other was my mother, who told Costin, “Teddy is smart and well-behaved, but don’t hesitate to pop him if he acts up.” Costin—God bless ’er—told my mother she would keep an eye on me. And then, as I sheepishly took my seat among the gaggle of my new giggling classmates, the two ladies exchanged The Look.

In the simplest terms, The Look is unspoken dialogue that confirms both sides are, as black parishioners often say, “on one accord.” In my case, it was a mother’s plea and a sister’s promise to pay special attention to this child and not allow him to get lost in the system. It wasn’t an agreement for favoritism; it was a pact to stay particularly attuned to my development and ensure I was not shut out from any opportunity. They both knew that no one understands the plight of a black student better than a black teacher.

In 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama rode the highest black voter turnout in U.S. history to the White House, black voters felt The Look had been exchanged. It was the electoral version of what happened that morning in third-grade. African American voters, frustrated by the government’s lack of responsiveness to decades of socioeconomic disparities, felt that a black president could give them special attention and understand black America’s grievances better than any other. They didn’t assume, much less expect or desire, that Obama’s election would translate into a glut of administrative and legislative actions geared toward black people. It wasn’t favoritism African Americans sought; they simply wanted an acknowledgement that structural racism is real and some executive resolve to address it from the first president to have experienced it firsthand. But things haven’t gone quite as they had hoped. And frustration has given rise to a new generation of black voters and activists, a generation who uses more overt and dynamic techniques to influence the political agenda.

It all started with an unprecedented connection to the presidency, which galvanized black voters. They followed 2008’s groundbreaking turnout with a higher participation rate in 2012, hand carrying Obama’s reelection to a second term. And even now, though Obama’s presidency has been filled with actions that seem to deliberately distance the Oval Office from any perceptions of racial nepotism—such as, “I’m not the president of black America” or “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination”—black voters remain the president’s staunchest ally.

Yet, African Americans have sensed that the president’s practicality was crowding out the promise. Obama’s hesitancy to make the causes and concerns of black Americans central tenets of his presidency became more apparent. And though the president has certainly been bolder in his lame-duck years, the die has been cast.

The welled-up hope that racism would be a presidential priority and undergo an incremental process of amelioration began to slowly dissipate in the face of politics as usual and a particularly uncooperative relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Unquestionably, his agenda helped—Obamacare increased their access to health insurance, the Recovery Act stemmed the recession, and more blacks are working again—but these are rising-tides-lift-all-boats actions that did little to reduce systemic disparities. Black Americans understood that Obama’s maneuverability and political capital were limited, and they knew all too well that his race was a factor in the constraints he faced, but that was all of little consolation when their policy concerns went unaddressed. When it came to racial inequalities, Obama’s pragmatism equaled the status quo—not a good look.

This realization has fueled frustrations and energized an already spirited African American constituency to take actions to exert external pressure on the political system, subsequently emboldening civic engagement. Rephrasing Martin Luther King’s famous justification of “Why We Can’t Wait,” young African Americans are declaring, “We won’t wait.”

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The next iteration of black political behavior is here. In 1993, Harvard professor Katherine Tate argued in her book From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections that Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential candidacies activated African Americans to identify and support leaders who could advance bla­­­­­­­ck America’s political aims through elected office. This was a marked shift from the Civil Rights era, when protest was the primary vehicle for enacting policy demands. Black voter participation rates and Obama’s elections are proof that Tate’s thesis was correct. Post-Obama, however, the allure of an elected official, even a black one, to effect change has worn off. Protest politics are returning to center stage.

The nation is witnessing the emergence of a post-Obama black electorate. It is a constituency that has grown impatient with elected officials’ generational promises that their programs will eventually pull blacks from the doldrums of society into a fairer America where opportunity is accessible and hard work is rewarded equally. To combat institutional lethargy, this wave of young people is employing a variety of tactics—from protest to pop culture—to influence the political agenda. They are the offspring of six decades of activism, growing voting power, and increased intra-racial class diversity.

The post-Obama bloc’s urgency for action is clear. African Americans are sick of the unemployment rate being perpetually twice the rate of whites. They are tired of poverty touching more black children while declining for other groups. They are sick of black neighborhoods being patrolled by battle-ready police. They are tired of rights and opportunity being held from them just because of their race, whether its new voter-identification laws that complicate access to the ballot or the persistence of employment, rental, and housing discrimination due to black skin and a black-sounding name. Plus, with health care increasingly inaccessible and health outcomes tragically worse for African Americans, they are literally sick and tired. If recent trends are sufficient indication, the post-Obama black electorate will probably be characterized by three things: stratified voter participation, increased reliance on alternative methods of political pressure, and initial signs of growing partisan and political diversity.

The new black electorate is fired up and ready to go, but the ballot box may not be the destination it once was. Though overall black voter participation increased between 2008 and 2012, Obama’s reelection came courtesy of African Americans over 45 years old. But for blacks born in the late 1980s onward, their turnout dropped nearly 7 percent in that same period, marking the first time that has occurred in decades. At the macro level, it’s evident that the Civil Rights generation and their oldest children value the power of voting differently than black Millennials, who are less interested in conforming to traditional institutional and power structures. This stratification is paralleled in different ways, including partisan affiliation, religiosity, and marital rates. As a result, older blacks are more likely to rely on the vote to bring about policy change, whereas young voters place less confidence in electoral strategies. In the short-term, this may translate to an overall drop in black voter participation rates. But decreased voter turnout should not be mistaken for disinterest.

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The post-Obama bloc employs a different strategy to bring about change—one rooted in creativity and energy. It is because of them that Black Lives Matter exists. Their hunger strike and protest at the University of Missouri, emblematic of campus protests across the country, accomplished what complaints to the state legislature and the board of directors could not. In South Carolina, one of them yanked the state’s Confederate battle flag off the pole before the governor officially took it down. Another wrote a reparations article that created a national conversation—something that a congressman’s annual reintroduction of House Resolution 40 could not. Together, and in front of a polarized nation, they have compelled the president to directly address their concerns, from Trayvon Martin’s death to the lack of diversity at the Oscars. And after releasing an unapologetically black new music video, Beyoncé put on the most powerful display of black femininity the Super Bowl has ever seen, and black lives dominated the news cycle yet again. These devices have been successful in getting specific issues of concern into the national conversation and onto the federal agenda with more urgency than their forebears.

The post-Obama black electorate is also the most diverse black electorate the nation has ever seen. As the black American experience becomes more nuanced due to a wider mix of income, education, housing, geography, and a number of other socioeconomic indicators within the group, the electorate’s policy views have become more varied and complex. This, coupled with exasperation with electoral politics, has revealed that many blacks are beginning to feel like a people without a party.

As I’ve previously written, the intra-racial diversity of lived experiences is exposing fault lines between blacks and the Democratic Party. This is evident in how Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been more vigorously challenged on race issues than in past election cycles. Moreover, more black Republicans are running for national office: Half of the newest black members of Congress are Republicans, and more black Republicans have run for the presidency since 2000 than black Democrats. In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney nearly doubled the percentage of black Republican votes compared with McCain in 2008. And new research shows that some segments of the black electorate are beginning to prioritize their self-interests over the group’s well-being—a departure from the black voting canon.

So what does all this mean for 2016? It won’t take long to find out. The first substantial glimpse of the post-Obama black electorate will occur when South Carolina’s African American voters head to the polls for the state’s open-primary elections this month. Will turnout be high with diverse support? Which black emissaries will the campaigns employ (Jesse Jackson? Tim Scott? Al Sharpton? Cornel West?)? Will Black Lives Matter or some other entity force the candidates to talk about Mother Emmanuel, Walter Scott, and delicate policy solutions in front of the home crowd?

­­­­­What is certain is that the new black electorate is here and demanding to be heard. It is visible in the streets; online; in social, cultural, and news media; and in the shifting demographics that have increased black political power. The resulting political hybrid is an evolutionary adaptation that strategically positions black America to exert serious influence on national politics for years to come. Call it The New Look.