During election season, I always cringe when I see candidates eating fried chicken next to a bottle of hot sauce in Harlem or taking staged photos with black leaders. These shallow symbolic gestures are not a substitute for meaningful engagement with black voters. And candidates should know that we see right through them.
Candidates and their campaigns are comfortable talking at black people, but few want to talk to us. This limits our ability to influence their decisions and policies. And it’s a bad strategy at a time when black people, black women in particular, form the base of the Democratic Party, are its most loyal voters and mobilize other people to go to the polls.
That’s why, in 2018, I started the Black Census Project, the results of which we are releasing on Tuesday. More than 31,000 black people from all 50 states participated in what we believe is the largest independent survey of black people ever conducted in the United States.
My organization and our partners trained more than 100 black organizers and worked with some 30 grass-roots organizations. We invested more than half a million dollars so they could reach black people who are often sidelined in traditional surveys and mainstream politics.
We set out to prove that black people are not a monolith — we are diverse and have a range of experiences. We talked with black people who live in cities and in rural areas; black people who were born in the United States and who migrated here; black people who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual; black people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming; black people who are liberal and conservative; and black people who are currently and formerly incarcerated.
We predicted that there would be different responses among black people of various ages, locations and family structures, and there were. Not everyone is affected the same way by the issues we all face. The need for adequate health care, for example, takes on greater urgency among black people in Alabama where Republican lawmakers are blocking Medicaid expansion.
But what surprised us the most was how few candidates treat us as if our differences and experiences matter.
Here is what we found:
The most common response among people who were politically engaged was that no politician or pollster has ever asked them what their lives were like. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that politicians do not care about black people, and one in three said they care only a little.
Yet this doesn’t stifle our participation in politics. Nearly three in four respondents said they voted in the 2016 presidential election, and 40 percent reported helping to register voters, giving people a ride to the polls, donating money to a candidate or handing out campaign materials. Six in 10 women surveyed reported being electorally engaged. These responses debunk the myth that black communities don’t show up to vote — we do and we bring other people with us.
Black communities, particularly black women, will be instrumental in deciding the next president. Nearly 60 percent of respondents were women, and nearly half lived in the South.
We want the things that everybody deserves. Ninety percent of respondents, for example, say that it is a major problem that their wages are too low to support a family, and that figure jumps to 97 percent among those who are electorally engaged.
The most important issues for respondents were also the most important issues facing the rest of the country — low wages, lack of quality health care, substandard housing, rising college costs and different sets of rules for the wealthy and the poor. Of course, a majority of Americans face these difficulties. But black communities experience them more acutely.
For every dollar white men earn, black women, for example, earn 65 cents, whereas white women earn 82 cents. Black families make up a large portion of those who use public housing assistance programs, which are underfunded and lacking in meaningful oversight. And then the average cost of attending a public college with in-state tuition is roughly $14,000 a year — that’s out of reach for black families whose median household income is $40,000.
To solve these challenges, respondents propose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour; making college affordable for anyone who wants to attend; and requiring the government to provide health care and adequate housing for everyone. A vast majority of them want to see the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes.
These results may not surprise anyone who is paying attention. But what is surprising is how few candidates address the issues that affect black communities or meaningfully court them.
Consider that, of the first $200 million spent by left-leaning independent groups in the 2016 presidential campaign, none was aimed at mobilizing black voters. In California, where I live, the Democratic Party reportedly raised $30 million in the last election cycle but spent only about $50,000 on black voter engagement.
Instead time, money and effort are expended to identify and cater to moderate white voters who are already fickle about politicians and political parties. This has long been the Democratic establishment’s strategy, but they doubled down on it after the 2016 election when analysts proclaimed that the left’s undue focus on “identity politics” sent moderate white voters to the Republican side.
Yet white voters are declining in numbers and advancing in age, while communities of color get bigger and younger. It is illogical to overextend resources to soothe the fears of an aging group, shrinking in size, that is fearful of demographic shifts and oblivious to the ways that policies that lift the boats sinking the fastest will lift theirs too. The Democrats’ approach hurts everyone — including the working- and middle-class white voters who want to see change. Nor is it a winning strategy for a party that claims to embrace progress.
Campaigns that fail to understand or try to remedy the ways structural racism damages black people’s lives are doomed. Without this analysis, their solutions will always miss the mark when it comes to black voters.
Some say that politics is quid pro quo, but that hasn’t been true for black voters. Our turnout in the 2018 midterms increased by nearly 11 percentage points over 2014, and voters in the 2018 election chose from among the most diverse pool of candidates ever.
The truth is, if candidates address the needs and concerns of black communities, it will result in dividends for all Americans.
The Black Census Project, with far fewer resources than any political party, most likely independently engaged with more black people than ever before. The candidates who want black people to vote for them ought to do the same.
Alicia Garza (@aliciagarza) is the founder and principal of the Black Futures Lab, the director of strategy and partnerships at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and a founder of Supermajority a clearinghouse for women’s activism.
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