A great deal if discussion ensued this summer over the #WalkAway movement, a social media discussion about whether the Democratic Party has for years taken the African American vote for granted.
Led primarily by young Black political activists such as Candace Owens, a popular conservative commentator and vocal opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and also by hip hop superstar Kanye West, who was among the first and most visible of African Americans to throw his support behind President Donald Trump, the debate may not grab the national headlines as much as the #MeToo movement, Women’s March or the NFL protests against police brutality, but within the Black community the result has led to a spirited discussion about which major political party has the best interests of the Black community at heart. West this week continued his support for the Trump Administration by meeting at the White House with the president and special adviser Jared Kushner to discuss problems and pose suggestions related to the nation’s inner cities, specifically offering thoughts on inner-city job training and, on a more personal note, how to stem the bloodshed among warring Black gangs in his hometown of Chicago.
Adherents to the #WalkAway meme attest that because Black support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was tepid at best, they reject the widely-held assumption that “Trump won because of racial resentment.” They also point to the decline in Black voter turnout two years ago as the “lowest in 20 years” for a presidential election, reportedly falling to 59.6 percent after reaching a record high of 66.6 percent in 2012.
“When over 90 percent of a community is voting for one political party, they become irrelevant,” Owens said of the purported dissatisfaction among Blacks with the Democratic Party. “Our voting predictability made it so that neither side needed to make good on promises to our community. This is all about to shift dramatically.”
To bolster her argument, Owens cited a Harvard-Harris survey conducted this summer which found that African Americans are the racial group most opposed to unlimited immigration (85 percent), where as 79 percent of Whites surveyed reportedly want to prioritize legal immigrants based on what they can contribute to the nation.
“A party that advocates open borders and the abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are going to get fewer and fewer of [our] votes,” Owens said.
Republicans are fond of emphasizing that the party was, essentially, founded by President Abraham Lincoln and his opposition to slavery. While Lincoln was not the specific brainchild of the new political party, his name has been identified with “ White uplift” of African Americans for the better part of 155 years. The GOP’s role in the history of civil rights may be even richer than the Great Emancipator. Since Reconstruction, African Americans voted overwhelmingly for republicans with the first elected officials (i.e. Sens. Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels of Mississippi) leading the charge for civil and early voting rights.
The ‘Great Emancipator’
To be sure, Lincoln had little affinity for Black people and was not necessarily against the expansion of slavery. When addressing the the Dred Scott decision during his run for Congress in 1857, Lincoln quoted the following: “There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all White people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the White and Black races…A separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation, but as an immediate separation is impossible, the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together.” His statement was also made within the confines of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which nullified the Missouri Comprise in allowing the new territories to “self-determine” whether they would allow slavery. “If White and Black people never got together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas,” he said.
Lincoln also believed that the birth of mixed-race children would cause the traditional American family structure to “collapse.” In another campaign speech, he said: “Our republican system was meant for a homogeneous people. As long as Blacks continue to live with Whites, they constitute a threat to the national life. Family life may also collapse and the increase of mixed-race bastards who may someday challenge the supremacy of the White man.”
At the time, the history of the Democratic Party was staunchly in favor of slavery and, years later, pro-segregation. By the 20th Century, the democrats under President Wilson had declared that segregation was “not a humiliation, but a benefit” in that the national tradition of Black subjugation would be fiercely defended and upheld by the highest office in the land. Wilson was not a “progressive” in the standards of Theodore Roosevelt, and not only single-handedly killed a Racial Policy Proposal which was approved by the League of Nations in 1919, but earlier in his administration banned African Americans from working in any capacity within the federal government.
Making progress with FDR
Just over a decade later, however, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition had began to advocate—albeit it slowly—for a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly in the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, as this body would hold significant influence in the hiring of Blacks for defense industry jobs at the outset of World War II.
After the war, Democrat Harry Truman passed executive orders to eliminate segregation among federal employees, desegregated the armed forces, and swiftly witnessed a revolt among his Democratic colleagues and his electoral base. It would be his successor, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw the tepid implementation and enforcement of these policies. Eisenhower was a late champion of Truman’s civil rights proposals and in 1957 sent his own legislation to Congress which became the only major civil rights bill passed since Republican Ulysses S. Grant in the 1880s. As well, Eisenhower, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, federalized the National Guard to protect Black students attending Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Eisenhower would later comment on his nomination of Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court: “I have made two mistakes, and they are both sitting on the the Supreme Court “ in reference to Warren’s advocacy of civil rights for African Americans, and also the progressive opinions of Associate Justice William Brennan.
President John Kennedy’s advocacy for civil rights was lackluster and at best inconsistent due to his concerns about alienating his party’s base, primarily in southern states which for more than a decade followed the mantra of the White “Dixiecrats” in a vehement rejection of civil and voting rights for African Americans. The first real moral leader for the Democratic Party was President Lyndon Johnson whose administration oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and 1968) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1967, Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the United States Supreme Court.
The ‘Southern Strategy’
These civil rights breakthroughs and outreach to African Americans from Eisenhower forward were, unfortunately, derailed by Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, former Vice President Richard Nixon and California Gov. Ronald Reagan. These Republican Party leaders would play to fears about the movement for racial equality and the social unrest of the 1960s in order to consolidate support for the right among poor, blue-collar and rural White Americans, particularly in the former Democratic stronghold of the south.
Since the 1960s, African Americans have been loyal to the Democratic Party. No Democratic presidential nominee has received less than 82 percent of the vote since Kennedy’s 68 percent in 1960. In the past 80 years, no Republican presidential nominee has done better than Eisenhower’s 39-percent Black vote in his 1956 reelection bid. In the 2008 election, 95 percent of the Black vote went to Barack Obama. In 2012 it was 93 percent. These statistics may appear unusual based on the fact that 47 percent of African Americans identify as “liberal,” and 45 percent as “conservative.”
Sociologists and political scientists alike often say that the shift among African Americans toward Democrat policies stem from Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in the mid-1930s, Blacks voted increasingly for Democrats specifically because of Roosevelt’s progressive economic and civil rights policies. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs geared toward Blacks and Truman’s desegregation of the military are often pointed to as turning points in a more liberal political philosophy espoused by African Americans.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies conducted a poll among Black voters during the 2016 presidential campaign and found that the Johnson Administration and the Civil Rights Act may have been the determining factor as to which party gained the most favor within the Black community. Johnson famously said after signing the legislation that Democrats would lose the South for a generation.
Goldwater’s notion of ‘liberty’
It’s been longer than that. The Democratic vote in the heart of the South—including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina—has slipped downward among White voters each year to the present. The Republican Party didn’t help itself, either, when Goldwater said in his 1964 acceptance speech for his party’s nomination for president: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Although meant originally to be a statement of confrontation between the United States against the Communist world, African Americans saw it as a “very specific notion of liberty” that did not include civil rights or voting rights.
“African Americans heard the message that was intended to be heard,” said Vince Hutchings, a political science professor with the University of Michigan. “It was not that Goldwater and the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party were opposed not only to the Civil Rights Act, but to the Civil Rights Movement, in large part, as well.”
Goldwater was able to attract the White Southern votes his advisers believed were essential to his election, thereby paving the way for the “Southern Strategy” that Nixon and Reagan would use successfully in later years. After the 1964 presidential election, roughly one-third of Black Republicans ran for the exits and never returned to the GOP.
There is still no clean alignment between how Blacks describe their political ideology and which candidates they vote for considering that African Americans identify with most of the tenants of conservatism (i.e. regular church attendance, opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and support of immigration reform, etc.). The Black vote—irrespective of socioeconomic status—has centered on racial unity. Black voters generally use the group’s “well-being” as a proxy for their own self interests, sometimes referred to as the “Black utility heuristic” approach to self-actualizing their political engagement.
Blacks become more informed voters
Black voters by the mid-1960s became more informed—and vocal—about the issues that affected their well-being (fair housing, education and employment), and gravitated to the party that best exemplified these needs. While liberal positions continue to be the dominant factor among Black voters, the social conservatism of Blacks doesn’t necessarily translate into voting behavior during presidential elections, even though religiosity is strongly correlated today with partisanship.
Apparently, a candidate’s race matters more to Black men and not so much to Black women. Studies have shown that Black men are more likely to support a Black presidential candidate, while Black women were more influenced by policy decisions and socioeconomic conditions. Scholars have long argued that the presence of a Black Democratic candidate increases Black turnout and feelings of political efficacy. Conversely, a Black Republican appears to have no effect on Black voter turnout, leading to a controversial finding that Black men may have a stronger sense of race identification than Black women in relation to the political process.
Further studies have indicated that while all Black voters express a preference for new legislation to address civil rights protections, middle-class Black men tend to support the candidate who believes that increased economic opportunity is the better remedy for racial inequality. Among these Black male voters is the recognition that while structural/institutional racism unfairly stacks the odds of socioeconomic advancement against them, believing that the best way to overcome racial discrimination is for individual Black to be better in facets of social development than their White counterpart. And while middle-class Blacks maintain a high level of race solidarity, they are reportedly less likely to believe that protest and social action are the proper means of addressing racial inequality.