What Black Voters Want

With the 2018 and 2020 elections on the horizon, race and racism are becoming ever-larger issues among the most marginalized communities in America, making the Democratic coalition harder and harder to hold.

Ric Francis / AP

In 2018, black voters are finding out just what the hell they had to lose.

Nazis and Klansmen march openly and proudly, and hate crimes appear to be on the rise. Police killings of people—especially black people—remain largely the same year to year, and this iteration of the Justice Department has largely abdicated any federal responsibility in reducing brutality. An infant-mortality crisis is tightening its grip on the most marginalized communities, and across many economic metrics—from evictions, to generational wealth, to segregation—disparities are either stagnating or trending in the wrong direction. Fifty years after the Kerner Commission’s report said the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the prophecy has been all but fully realized.

As Americans head to the polls in primaries this year and prepare to do their civic duties this fall and in the fall of 2020, the 50 years of backlash against civil rights that helped fulfill that prediction might either be ratified or repudiated. Yet, in the middle of a nationwide conversation of diner visits and coal-miner profiles in service of understanding people who voted for President Trump and this regime, there’s been remarkably little analysis of the demographic that voted against him almost entirely. What drives and motivates black citizens to vote, and is simply being anti-Trump enough to get them out this fall?

A new poll due to be released by the independent political organization BlackPAC sheds light on the motivations of black voters. Conducted by former Obama and DNC pollster and strategist Cornell Belcher and his firm, Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, the poll of 1,000 black voters in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, and Florida aims to “examine the factors essential to a Democratic wave in the 2018 elections,” according to a memo from BlackPAC. But it accomplishes much more than that,  providing valuable insights on the role of race and racism of Trump’s presidency, and the partisan destiny of the country even beyond 2018.

The poll finds black voters in dire self-reported straits. Over half of those surveyed believe the economy is getting worse, and over 40 percent believe they are falling behind economically. Only one in 10 black voters in the survey sample believe they are getting ahead economically, and that sentiment holds broadly across age and education groups. Over three-quarters of all black voters believe the country is generally heading in the wrong direction.

That directionality is reflected by what black voters see as a trend of increasing racism over the past few years. Eighty-nine percent of black voters believe racism in the country has gotten worse since 2016, the same proportion believes racism is prevalent in America, and over half believe that one of the key shifts in American politics has been a renewed attack on black Americans.

Of course, many of those perceptions are linked to Donald Trump, who in this sample faces an 84 percent disapproval rating, and whom a similar amount of black voters think is racist. But the overall perception of a country spiraling into a new nadir of racism is also reinforced by personal experiences with racism. Eighty-one percent of all black voters say they experience racism, with 40 percent saying they experience it often.

Interestingly, racial and economic indicators all have geographic skews, and rural black people are much more likely than their urban or suburban counterparts to experience racism and express distress about the economic outlook. But, according to Belcher, in the age of Trump that relative gap is narrowing, not widening.  “It is an interesting time,” Belcher said. “Because I think if we had done this poll eight years ago, I think we would see more bifurcation between urban, rural, and suburban voters.”

“What we’re seeing is a greater mobilization across geographies in the black community,” Belcher continued. Essentially, what the poll data pick up is that across different levels of geography, across class and income, black people as a whole are both economically and socially destabilized, a state that will have major ramifications in how black people respond to politics.

These findings echo those of some other recent polls. A November poll from Winthrop University found that three-quarters of all black Southerners said that minorities in the country were under attack. CNN/ORC polls from August 2017 find that the majority of black voters believe they are discriminated against by police, courts, banks, and workplaces, a result with which an NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll from October roughly agrees. A December Pew Research poll shows that overall views of race relations are approaching a low not seen since the Los Angeles riots in 1992, with barely over a quarter of black Americans saying they believe race relations are generally good.

Those perceptions are all tied deeply to racial sentiments of economic success and opportunity. Another Pew Research poll found that only 17 percent of all black Americans believed they had already reached the American dream. A Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index poll from February 2017 brings everything into full view: It finds that while black people are consistently more optimistic than white counterparts about their future economic status, black people also are much less likely to achieve those lofty goals, and often report lower current status on the American economic ladder.

All of the evidence points to a unique interplay of economic and racial factors that form a continuum of disadvantage for black voters. “It’s increasingly clear that you can’t separate these two messages,” said Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC’s executive director. “While all of the economic issues are deeply felt and are enormous concerns to black voters … the issues around racial justice are in some cases more important.” According to Belcher, the increasing likelihood of black voters to experience racism and see it as a major structural impediment is one of the biggest shifts in voter outlook across demographics over the last 10 years. A quarter of all black Americans said they did not experience racism in a 2008 Center on African American Politics and Society poll, and Barack Obama’s election that year marked a spike in racial optimism among black voters.

Perhaps fittingly, there’s been a corresponding major shift in attitudes among the electoral inverse of these black voters: white Trump voters.

While the “economic anxiety” among working-class white voters that became a meme after the 2016 election does have a certain amount of explanatory power, strictly-defined economic pressures have trouble explaining why whites across classes voted for Trump. But more nebulous “cultural” pressures seemed to be better predictions of a vote for Trump. According to a 2017 analysis of a post election survey by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute, fear of change and a desire to protect the American way of life were the factors most tightly tied to a vote for Trump among working-class white voters. And as my colleague Olga Khazan notes, among white voters who switched from Obama to Trump, the key indicators weren’t changes in wages or economic opportunity, but a desire for their demographic groups to dominate, and a belief that anti-white discrimination is rampant.

Those voters were the story of 2016; it’s likely black voters will be the story of 2018 if the “blue wave” of Democratic wins manifests. The recent victory of Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s special election for its open Senate seat is still the guiding light. In that election, in which BlackPAC also provided critical support in black organizing and outreach, major surprise gains in black turnout buoyed Jones’s win against Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy sagged under multiple allegations of sexual assault and abuse of minors. In the aftermath of that race, black organizers and activists who’d worked for weeks to turn out rural counties in Alabama’s “black belt” said their energy didn’t really come from Jones or from Democratic support, but as a community-wide response to “the resurgence of this white conservative overtly racist rhetoric,” symbolized by Trump and Moore, according to Selma grassroots activist LaTosha Brown.

But BlackPAC’s poll indicates that the road ahead for Alabama-like victories will be difficult for Democrats. Black millennial interest in the midterm elections sits 20 points behind that of their elders. And while Democrats tend to view young black voters as “get out the vote” voters, or those who are already expected to vote for the party if they can be encouraged to get to the polls, the data suggest that these voters increasingly identify as and behave like true independents. “They see themselves as being persuadable,” Shropshire said. “They want to be approached.”

And they want to be approached with concrete solutions to specific racial disparities, not just generic anti-Trump talk. In the BlackPAC/Brilliant Corners poll, across income, geographic, and age groups, black voters see “fighting to end racism and discrimination” as the most important electoral concern, with school funding, access to affordable health care, and fighting for the poor as the next-most-important issues. While it might be expected that those issues might continue a natural affinity between black people and Democrats, black voters are increasingly skeptical of the Democratic ability and commitment on racial-justice issues, with 40 percent of all black voters believing that Democrats aren’t better than Republicans on ending discrimination or protecting black people from hate crimes, and over half of all black voters believing the opposition party isn’t better than the GOP at eliminating voter-suppression laws.

While it’s unlikely that any significant number of these black voters will ever vote Republican, their ability to stay home or vote for third-party candidates has real ramifications for electoral politics. The delicate balancing act central to Democratic politics has involved building an incredibly fragile coalition of people of color, college-educated and urban whites, and just enough blue-collar and poor white people in swing states. A common instinct to manage this act is to lean on a sort of generic economic appeal, one that will get enough black voters on board without scaring away whites prone to “cultural anxiety” with too-ambitious racial-justice agendas. This instinct assumes that racial justice is a zero-sum political game, an assumption that—given increasing chafing about civil-rights policies from white voters—might have some merit to it.

But in the age of Trump, Shropshire and Belcher tell me that generic appeals to economics aren’t going to cut it for black voters. There is a deep sense among the black voters polled that the president himself is a both a symptom of and a major driver of a uniquely new wave of American racism, one that appears to already be touching their daily lives. And their experience with that daily fact of racism appears to be primed to change the mandate of the party that for decades has considered itself the aegis of civil rights.

“It’s fighting for these issues, but also fighting for these voters,” Shropshire said.

If the reasoning for white voters who rolled the dice on a Trump presidency in 2016 was social desperation—that they looked ahead to a future in which their children might fare significantly worse than them—what does that reasoning say then for black voters and the politicians seeking to represent them? The data suggest that in order to win the necessary black votes, Democrats will have to tie themselves to the mast of a truly anti-racist campaign. Otherwise, it is Democrats who will have a lot to lose.