The Myth of a Monolithic “Black Vote”


blackvoteMany believe that Bernie Sanders will lose the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton in part because he cannot galvanize “the black vote.” Writing for The Nation on February 28th, Joan Walsh declared, “When the history of the 2016 presidential primary is written, if Hillary Clinton is the party’s nominee, it will show that Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign effectively ended in South Carolina.” Why? Because Clinton learned, from 2008, to treat the state “as a proxy for the black Democratic primary vote.” That year, after she lost the state badly to Barack Obama, “her campaign hemorrhaged African-American support” and never recovered. This year, Walsh posits, that is more or less Sanders’s problem.

Sanders’s struggle with black voters in the state came into clear focus at a meet-and-greet, on February 13th, with the Sanders supporter Erica Garner—the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Eric Garner, who died after being choked by a police officer—at Jackie’s, a soul-food restaurant in one of North Charleston’s black neighborhoods. I arrived before Garner and found fifteen Sanders supporters, nearly all of whom were white, chatting animatedly among themselves and picking at Jackie’s famous macaroni and cheese. Black customers who walked past the table on their way to the ordering counter cocked their heads and furrowed their brows in confusion—what were all these white people doing here? The intention of the gathering, surely, was to drum up support in the black community for Sanders, but the scene turned out to be a bleak harbinger of primary day—a giant win for Clinton that confirmed her long-established black support.

When black men were enfranchised, in 1870, with the Fifteenth Amendment, the group became a voting bloc known as “the negro vote,” Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, told me. Almost a century later, the term morphed into “the black vote” as the word “negro” became gauche in the country’s liberal corners. The idea of the black vote persists among pundits, journalists, pollsters, and politically engaged dinner-party attendees to describe the electoral preferences of millions of voters. Once loyal to the party of Lincoln, blacks shifted their support almost completely to the Democratic Party with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964. But if you look at state-by-state numbers for this year’s Democratic contest, “the black vote” appears more complicated. So far, Sanders has not won a majority of black voters in any contest with a large African-American population. But he has done much better with black voters in Midwestern states and with younger black voters across the country. These variances are one reason to start to unravel the myth of a monolithic black vote.

In the South, black voters overwhelmingly went for Clinton, but it’s also the case that voters of every race cast more ballots for Clinton than they did for Sanders. In South Carolina, Clinton won eighty-six per cent of the black vote and fifty-four per cent of the white vote. In Georgia, she nabbed eighty-five per cent of the black vote and fifty-eight per cent of the white vote. “Clinton just did better in the South,” Harry Enten, a political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight, said. One reason why her black support may have been particularly strong in the region is that partisan politics in the South have a strong racial element. Hutchings noted that, in general, “black people and white people in the South have never belonged to the same political party since emancipation.” Before 1948, to the extent that blacks were able to vote, they largely voted Republican, and whites voted Democratic. When Democrats shifted to embrace civil rights after the Second World War, Southern whites briefly broke away from the Party to form the short-lived segregationist Dixiecrats. “Because of sharp racial divisions in the South—sharper than they are in the Midwest—blacks have a firm recognition that the Democratic Party is identified with their group, just as whites do with the Republican Party,” Hutchings said. Blacks in the South may have a harder time supporting an avowed socialist from Vermont, who only recently embraced the Democratic Party, in part because their identification with the Party brand historically has reigned supreme.

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