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A weapon against radicalism: Debunking the myth of the conservative Black voter

Feb 15, 2022

Terrence Floyd, George Floyd's brother speaks at his brother's memorial at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Lorie Shaull. Source: Wikicommons.

Nina Turner’s loss, the primary results of Bernie Sanders, India Walton’s win—and then loss—the victory of Eric Adams, and the triumph of Cori Bush’s sit-in once again ignited the political discussion around the political make-up of the Black electorate. The general trend has been a strengthening of the view that Black voters are “more conservative” and that more progressive Black voters and those they elect are unrepresentative, out-of-step and, as elected officials, actually backed by white middle-class people at the ballot box rather than working-class Blacks.

The implicit suggestion is that the voting trends portend something more broadly about the politics of Black people. The myth of the Black conservative voter conflates several issues to produce a grand narrative not of Black voters specifically, but of Black people in general. Its main ideological goal is to fight against the reality woven throughout U.S. history: that the Black nation remains a reservoir of revolutionary possibility. The goal is to get you to dismiss and forget that Minneapolis’ Third Precinct burned down, that tens of millions took to the streets, that the state was forced to deploy massive military force and arrest tens of thousands of rebels, or that strikes are regularly emanating from the most torturous prison blocks.

You aren’t supposed to grasp the obvious conclusion about the rank cynicism of all of America’s cultural touchstones racing to be in tune with “Black Lives Matter:™” a sense that somebody better do something because, if not, Black people—and plenty of other people—are going to do something more profound than just voting.

Without these inconvenient dynamics at play, the “Black Community” can be deployed politically. The bearer of moderate, sensible policies, born of a semi-mystical, deeply imbued “wisdom;” inflected by so-called Christian values and, thus, possessed with the deep powers of redemption; at once compassionate, also pitiable, but not threatening; Aunt Jemima, not Assata Shakur; a collective version of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

And, just like Ms. Stowe’s book, this narrative has become a powerful political organizing principle. It coheres a soulless liberal capitalism with a fun-house mirror version of Black Liberation, a “social vision” to use like a club against correct critiques of the totally inadequate answers to any of the burning issues of the day.

A powerful ideological weapon for sure, but one that is fundamentally false. Any real exploration of the political situation offers a very different set of conclusions and tasks. As we’ll see in this article, the reality is actually much more favorable to real revolutionary change.

Black voters (and people) are conservative, as compared to whom? How is representativeness defined? The first issue involves disentangling two overlapping categories: Black voters and Black people. Second, there is the issue of the extent to which elected officials—or election results—should be considered factors in determining Black public opinion.

The voters and the people

Voting patterns can tell us something about Black political leanings, considering, for instance, that 62.6% of the Black voting age population voted in 2020 [1]. However, general trends have to be seen as highly contingent and subject to the vagaries of multi-cycle turnout percentages and stratified results. Consider the following:

In 2020, 55% of the Black electorate was over the age of 44 [2].

Black Electorate by Age

But, in 2019, 58% of all Black Americans were under 38 [3].

Black Population by Age

There are around 1 million Black young people between the ages of 15-17 whose lives are deeply affected by many critical policy issues but who have no vote at all [4]. There are 1.8 million Black people who are banned from voting in 34 states due to relationships to the criminal legal system: “As of 2020, in seven states—Alabama; Florida; Kentucky; Mississippi; Tennessee; Virginia; Wyoming—more than one in seven Black adults are disenfranchised” [5].

Imagine how that affects any particular public policy debate, like policing. While 53% of all firearm homicide victims are Black males, Black males were 42% of the Black electorate in 2020 [6]. Thirty-seven percent of gun homicide victims are Black males between the ages of 15-34 [7]. Meanwhile, 866,000 Black males between the ages of 18-24 voted in 2020, which is 4.5% of the Black electorate, or 0.5% of the overall electorate [8].

In other words, an entire discourse has been constructed around policing and community violence in which the most likely victims of the violence under discussion are massively underrepresented in the electorate. This electorate is, in turn, supposed to offer insight into the question of how “Black people” feel about policing, prisons and community violence.

How “representative” voting is, in terms of definitive statements about whole group beliefs, also becomes murkier when you consider the variability of voter turnout across a sampling of representative Black neighborhoods and communities.

Englewood is one of Chicago’s most venerable Black working-class communities that corresponds roughly to that city’s 16th Ward. Englewood is notable as well because, after a police shooting in 2020, residents, mainly youth, took to the streets and did some serious damage to the downtown billionaires’ playground known as the Magnificent Mile. Of the seven elections since 2012, only three had more than 50% of registered voters show up at the polls.

In 2020, in the iconic Black working-class community of Barry Farms in Washington D.C.—whose roots stretch back to Reconstruction—48.5% of registered voters went to the polls. At a fairly close-by precinct, W.B. Patterson Elementary School, deep in the heart of working class Black Washington, 53% of registered voters came to vote. In 2018, 28.6% turned out in Barry Farm and 29.4% at W.B. Patterson.

In 2020 in Claiborne County, Mississippi, a rural community that is 84% Black, 68.3% of registered voters turned out; in 2018, it was 45.8%. In Hinds County, Mississippi, where Jackson is, 61% of Black and 59.9% of registered voters showed up in 2020. In 2018, it was 43.7%. In 2021, only 17.2% of Jackson city voters voted in the controlling Democratic primary for mayor, which is 14,167 voters fewer than the 2017 election.

This sampling reflects the basic fact that many Black officials are elected on distinct minorities of registered voters and the voting-age population writ large and, depending on the office, occasionally gain majority support every four years.

This all calls into question the relationship between various Black politicians and the major political parties, specifically their role as whippers of votes.

For instance, in his heavily Black Sixth Congressional District, Rep. Jim Clyburn won 68.2% of the vote, which appears like a landslide. That being said, he only won 45% of registered voters in 2020. In both counties Clyburn’s chosen Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, actually got a smaller percentage of the electorate than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In fact, remarkably, in majority Black areas all across the country—in both urban and rural settings—Joe Biden lost votes compared to Clinton in 2016. This was true in Detroit, Philadelphia, the majority Black wards of Milwaukee, every majority Black county in North Carolina and Arkansas, and all but three majority Black counties in South Carolina. In all of them, Biden lost raw votes, percentage share, or both compared to the Democrats’ 2016 effort. In Mississippi, the same held true in 14 of the 17 majority-Black counties. This was also true for Tuskegee, the county seat of Macon County, Alabama. All over Chicago’s South Side—the 9th, 15th, 16th and 17th wards—the same vote loss trend appeared. In Dallas County, Alabama (home to Selma) and Lake County, Indiana (home to Gary), roughly the same percentage of people showed up to vote, as they did in Essex County, New Jersey (home to Newark) and Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The principle exception was Georgia. Eight out of 11 majority Black counties increased their votes for the Democratic presidential ticket—notably in Rockdale county, which saw a nine percentage point surge. Clearly, the Democratic campaign in Georgia was driven by several years of well-organized voter registration and community organizing activities in Black communities.

Another exception was Virginia, where Danville, Petersburg, and Portsmouth all increased their vote total for Biden compared to Clinton. Baltimore, Maryland, also saw a noted increase, as did Saginaw City, Michigan. Again, these were exceptions to the general phenomenon: the limits of the mobilizing power of the Black political class.

So what does all this mean? It means that the Black vote is an important but limited tool for understanding the political views and leanings of Black people. It is highly contingent based on age and election year and offers the most reliable picture of a non-majority subset of the Black population that skews towards those over 45.

Of polls and polling

Even when one considers the electorate more directly, it is far less than straightforward that Black voters were “more conservative.” This is most notably because the very notion clashes with a large swath of publicly available measures of opinion.

In a July 2021 Pew Research Center survey querying respondents on how they feel about “making tuition at public colleges free,” 86% of Black respondents favored the proposal and 55% “strongly favored” it. This was higher than every single other demographic category analyzed by the Center, excepting self-described “liberals” (89%), who also had an identical 55% of respondents strongly favoring free higher education at public institutions [9].

Similarly, in early 2020, the Campaign for Free College Tuition remarked in a polling update:

“In the twelve times CFCT polled on free college tuition since December 2016, overall support of state programs making public colleges tuition-free has ranged from 71 to 81 percent. Hispanics (91 percent), African Americans (90 percent), Democrats (89 percent), and Millennials and Xers between ages 35 and 49 (88 percent) were the most supportive groups” [10].

In a July 2019 The New York Times poll, 44% of Black respondents “strongly supported” “paying reparations to the descendants of slaves,” compared to 8% of whites, 59% of whom, tellingly, were “strongly opposed.” In that same poll, 40% of Blacks strongly supported the proposition of “having a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare-for-all, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan,” as compared to 28% of whites [11].

Another Times poll from May 2021 recorded that 41% of whites strongly approved of “Child Care assistance for low and middle income families,” while 66% of Blacks said the same. Similarly, 60% of Blacks strongly supported “Funding for parental family and personal illness leave for workers,” whereas for whites it was 39% [12].

Paid Leave

In June 2020, just after 10,000 were arrested in one week protesting police terrorism, an ABC/Ipsos poll found:

“A majority of black Americans support the movement to ‘defund the police,’ (57%) and putting the money towards other community programs (64%), a departure from the other groups. Support among [B]lacks for the ‘defund the police’ movement is more than double that of whites (26%)” [13].

A month later, Pew found that “Black adults and young people say spending on police should be decreased.” The survey found that 42% of Black adults said that police funding in their area should be decreased, compared to 21% of whites [14].

A USA Today poll from March 2021 noted that 63% of Black respondents “support distributing portions of police funds to social programs, while 35% of white voters do.” The poll further found that only 37% of Black respondents thought police budgets should “remain the same,” as opposed to 65% of whites [15].

Just before Christmas 2020, a HuffPost/YouGov poll asked registered voters if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of socialism. On the favorable side, Black’s outpaced whites by 10 percentage points (36% to 26%). Interestingly enough, the poll asked a question of whether or not those answering the poll thought socialism helps Democrats win elections, and, notably, by three percentage points, Blacks outpaced whites here as well [16].

View of Socialism

This goes some way in explaining the Newsweek headline, during a hotly contested moment in the 2020 Democratic primary, that noted “Bernie Sanders is three times as popular as Joe Biden with young Black voters.” It also helps account for the fact that Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest, DSA-aligned candidates in Brooklyn, won the majority of votes in the majority-Black precincts in their electoral districts [17]. And it explains why Nina Turner “won five of Cleveland’s nine black-majority wards and lost four (all of them narrowly, by less than two points)…[and] won the city of Cleveland overall, as well as the black-majority city of Akron” [18].

The Washington Post examined arrest data from protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd between May 25-June 8, 2020 in 15 of the U.S.’s largest cities. They found that 50% of those arrested were Black. In Portland, Oregon, during the intense street battles happening during the same time, Black people were more than twice as likely to be arrested as whites [19].

In Chicago, the weekend after George Floyd was murdered, Chicago police arrested 2,172 people. According to the Chicago Reader, 70% were Black [20]. In New York City, between Floyd’s murder and early June, 68% of all felony arrests at protests were of Black people [21]. In Louisville, between May 29 and September 28 2020, “Black people made up 53% of the total arrests and 69% of arrests with a felony…Black people also received 66% of felony rioting charges in that time” [22]. In Cincinnati, over the four days after the murder of George Floyd, 63% arrested on multiple charges during protests were Black [23].

The Justice Department has obfuscated the racial data in terms of arrests they made during the Federal crusade against the rising tide of resistance. But of the available information, 52% of the Federal protest arrests were of Black people [24].

Assuming some of these disparities are related to police bias as much as actual activity, it does seem notable that across the country during the uprising Black people were, at least perceived by police, as most in need of control; that is, the most rebellious.

Is it possible to view the above results and logically construe the Black population or electorate as “moderate” or “conservative?” Clearly something much more nuanced is at play when we combine this public opinion with the results of various voting (and non-voting) patterns across the country.

Clearing the fog

It seems clear that Black people are voting (or not voting) based not necessarily on what they think is right, but what they think is possible inside the constraints of the system. Anecdotally, judgements about political reality play an important role in elections and absolutely explain how many people end up voting for candidates less progressive than they are—the “sounds great, but they can’t win” effect.

Further, the electorate skews older. Some of the broader societal age divides of our society are also present in the Black community and on particular issues—like policing and socialism. The over-representation of older voices in the electoral count produces political figures more moderate on questions where this divide is most prevalent.

Relatedly, the relatively small number of younger Black voters voting consistently and at lower rates of voter registration create a distortion effect around the issue of Black opinions on various issues. There are fewer “scientific” data points that mainstream journalists or political scientists respect. In essence, they erase or ignore large numbers of Black people because they are disproportionately less present in the information the media uses to make its judgements.

This additionally erases the obvious data points that are there to complicate the picture; most notable are the huge mass movement led by younger Black people under the broad banner of the “Movement for Black Lives” and the related, youth-powered uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and other cities.

From our point of view, the most notable factor is the fraying of the Democratic Party bloc vote. The fraying of the Democratic party bloc vote is evident in the percentage and/or numerical reduction in votes for Biden as compared to Clinton in many heavily Black areas; the slight uptick in Trump votes in many of the same areas; and the proliferation of mass movement activity and uprisings. All of this seems to speak to a growing dissatisfaction with Democratic party elites, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the record of the Democratic party in pushing a politics of austerity, gentrification, and militarized policing in heavily Black areas.

It underlines the ideological imperatives behind the “conservative” or “moderate” Black voter myth. As we’ve shown here, even a cursory look at the evidence would seemingly rule out such a simplistic understanding. The durability of the myth speaks to how crucial it is for the objects of contestation—Black politicians and their media bodyguards—in the guarding of their own positions.

The myth-making is, in and of itself, a weapon against more radical ideas. It serves multiple purposes, but the main one is to code radicalism as “white.” This coding is closely associated with the “outside agitators” trope deployed at every uprising, which is another attempt to marginalize uprisings as measures of (among other things) Black public opinion.

The myth of the Black conservative voter is designed to obscure the fact there is a combative and at times insurrectionary tendency in society today, one that’s particularly evident in—and that often emerges from—Black communities.

References

[1] United States Census Bureau. (2021). “Voting and registration in the election of November 2020,” April. Available here.
[2] Ibid., available here.
[3] Tamir, Christine, Abby Budiman, Luis Noe-Bustamonte, and Lauren Mora. (2021). “Facts about the U.S. Black population,” Pew Research Center, March 25. Available here.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Chung, Jean. (2021). “Voting rights in the era of mass incarceration: A primer,” The Sentencing Project, July 28. Available here.
[6] U.S. Census Bureau, “Voting and registration in the election of November 2020.” Available here.
[7] Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. (2021). A public health crisis decades in the making: A review of 2019. CDC Gun Mortality Data. Available here.
[8] U.S. Census Bureau, “Voting and registration in the election of November 2020.” Available here.
[9] Hartig, Hannah. (2021). “Democrats overwhelmingly favor free college tuition, while Republicans are divided by age, education,” Pew Research Center, August 11. Available here.
[10] Campaign for Free College Tuition. (2020). “January 2020 polling update.” Available here.
[11] Wronski, Laura. (2021). “New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll: July 2019.” Available here.
[12] Wronski, Laura. (2021). “New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll: May 2021.” Available here.
[13] Karson, Kendall. (2020). “64% of Americans oppose ‘defund the police’ movement, key goals: POLL,” ABC News, June 12. Available here.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Elbeshbishi, Sarah and Mabinty Quarshie. (2021). “Fewer than 1 in 5 support ‘defund the police’ movement,” USA Today, March 07. Available here.
[16] Huffpost Socialism. Available here.
[17] Brennan, David. (2020). “Bernie Sanders is three times more popular than Joe Biden among young Black voters, poll shows,” Newsweek, February 28. Available here.
[18] Karp, Matt. (2021). “Nina Turner showed that a left candidate can win Black workers,” Jacobin, August 05. Available here.
[19] Ramsey, Austin R., Jacob Wallace, Christopher Casey, and Verónica Del Valle. (2020). “Swept up by police,” Washington Post, October 23. Available here.
[20] Misra, Kiran. (2020). “Most of the people arrested at the protests were Black,” Chicago Reader, June 30. Available here.
[21] New York City Department of Investigation. (2020). “Investigation into NYPD response to the George Floyd protests,” December. Available here.
[22] Loosemore, Bailey. (2020). “‘It’s by design’: Black people most often charged with felonies amid Louisville protests,” Courier Journal, October 29. Available here.
[23] Headley, Duard. (2020). “350 protesters were arrested in Cincinnati. 309 of them might have their charges dropped,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 08. Available here.
[24] M4BL. (2021). “Struggle for power: The ongoing persecution of Black movement by the U.S. government.” Available here.

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