There’s a transformation happening in the Black political landscape. But exactly what that shift is, is still up for debate. Most political pundits, both national and local, say there’s a move away from Black’s traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party and towards independent status. However, some beg to differ.
This seeming shift has been the topic of several research studies and op-eds for a few years now. Jessica Byrd, Stacey Abrams’ campaign manager during her 2018 Georgia Governor’s race, said in a Sept. 2020 New York Times op-ed, “The Future of Black Politics,” argues the shift is a move away from political business as usual, i.e. relying solely upon the current two-party system, and towards a focus on process and movement-building.
Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor’s op-ed, “The End of Black Politics,” also in the New York Times (June 2020), asserted a similar position, with both Taylor and Byrd pointing to Blacks Millennial-age and younger, as leading the way.
FROM REPUBLICANS TO DEMOCRATS
“For Black voters, the feeling of being used without being listened to is pronounced,” wrote Byrd, citing a 2019 Black Census Project survey that revealed 52% of respondents believed politicians do not care about Black people. Byrd added that young Blacks of voting age she interviewed were primarily reluctant to vote because they saw their parents and grandparents vote “religiously while receiving little to nothing in return.”
Statistically speaking, those ballot-casting parents and grandparents voted predominantly for Democrats even though Blacks originally showed allegiance to the GOP, known then as the “Party of [Abraham] Lincoln,” in the late 1800s.
“It’s important to note Blacks have not always supported Democrats in mass,” said Dr. Carla Brailey, vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “In fact, it was the Republican Party that was eventually formed to oppose slavery and support voting rights for Black people, juxtaposed to the Democratic Party embracing of policies and politics grounded in white supremacy practices.”
Blacks moved in mass to the Democratic Party during the 1930s with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Those who didn’t switch then, certainly moved towards the Democratic Party in the 1960s.
“If you look at the civil rights movement, that was the party in terms of identity for Black Americans,” said Dr. Michael O. Adams, head of TSU’s e-MPA program. “The Democratic Party was pushing for freedom in terms of civil rights and the right to vote.”
Simultaneously, according to theologian/historian Demosthenes Nelson, the Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, positioned itself unofficially as the “National White People’s Party” and fully opposed civil rights. As a result, the nation witnessed white southern Democrats, nicknamed “Dixiecrats,” moving as a bloc to the Republican Party.
The current shift some see with Black voters moving from identifying as Democrats to Independents is nowhere near as dramatic, but according to Brailey, it is happening.
THE SHIFT IS ON
Brailey says neither political party was created at its origins to benefit voters of color or women, and that Blacks had to fight to be included as voters and decision-makers on both sides.
“Even today, there is a large number of Black people who don’t believe either party serves its best interest. This is particularly true for younger voters, who believe both parties aim to serve themselves, i.e., the leaders and stakeholders,” said Brailey. “Empowered Black voters are demanding our nation moves beyond symbolic representation to taking more radical approaches in developing substantial life-changing policies that impact the socio-economic and political conditions for Black people.”
Brailey points to the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential run and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement as the marker for the change in Blacks’ mass commitment to the Democratic Party, and move beyond partisan politics.
“Younger votes are particularly buying into the layer notion to combat these historical challenges facing the Black community from police brutality, food insecurity, gentrification, health disparities, economic inequality and other chronic inequities. They are independently seeking better leadership for better lived experiences for Black people in America. They are demanding progress over picture-ops, performances and positions that do not increase the quality of life for Black people,” added Brailey who still contends the majority of Blacks vote Democrat.
In 2019 many of those young people gathered in Washington D.C. for the Second Annual Black Millennial Convention, aiming to “advance racial equity, increase Black political power, and expand civic engagement” among people of African descent, ages 24 to 38.
“[The goal is] developing a Black Millennial agenda to show the country that we have power, we are unified, we’re engaged, we’re getting involved. The goal is … the liberation of our people,” said Wes Bellamy, co-chair and co-founder of the three-day conference, whose attendees were less focused on party allegiance than finding solutions to issues facing Blacks.
MORE ISSUE-FOCUSED THAN PARTY-SHIFTING
For many, this millennial move signals a shift for Blacks away from the Democrats. However, not everyone agrees.
“The Black community is rallying to ensure that conditions in the Black communities change, and will support candidates and leaders who can lead and usher in the needed policy changes,” said former Houston City Councilmember Amanda Edwards. “I would not call this a shift from Democrat to Independent; I call it a focus on the fact that leadership matters and the results they produce matter even more.”
Edwards attributes this focus to the fact that Black businesses are closing at alarming rates due to inequity with PPP loan distribution and the Black community is facing disproportionately high rates of mortality stemming from COVID-19
“The stakes are too high to allow the status quo to persist. Lives are lying in the balance every day,” she added.
Sharon Watkins Jones, a community affairs, public relations and political consultant concurs.
“I’ve always said that Black voters, particularly Black women, are the most politically savvy, and while in modern history, have voted for candidates in the Democratic Party, would vote according to the needs of the community, regardless of party affiliation,” shared Jones, co-owner of Watkins Jones LLC.
Jones referenced Omar Ali’s book “In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics” in sighting the statistic that says 30% of African American voters consider themselves Independent voters, without loyalty to a political party.
“All eyes this election cycle were on Georgia. There are women in every Black community now who are inspired by Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown to revolutionize the way Black votes are mobilized in their own neighborhoods. It feels like finally we know our worth.”
For his part, Adams adds to the argument that Blacks are less turning away from the Democratic Party than turning harder towards a focus on issues important to us, using Black voter movement as reaction to President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime bill as an example.
Regarding the political switch by some Blacks after Clinton’s Crime bill devastated several Black communities nationally, Adams said, “The question would be, ‘Why did you leave the Democratic Party?’ And the retort would be, ‘I’m not leaving the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.’”
Adams added that the majority of his students during the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries were “feeling the Bern,” supporting the more progressive Democratic politics of senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Yet, those students were “savvy” enough to overwhelmingly vote for Biden in 2020, not out of allegiance to the Democrats, but out of commitment to “get Trump out of office.”
POTENTIAL OUTCOMES OF THIS SHIFT
Byrd says Black Millennials are rejecting traditional party politics and “holding their noses” while they vote for candidates they don’t believe in. She says, their focus is on process: hiring campaign organizers with experiences common to the communities they’re assigned; designing year-round field plans rather than monthlong “Get Out the Vote” efforts; and inspiring and educating voters rather than hitting them with the politics of fear.
“We work to avoid what the political scientist Paul Frymer calls ‘electoral capture’ — the Democratic Party’s habitual disregard for Black people’s political interests despite the fact that they are the party’s most loyal constituency and have no other reasonable alternative for representation,” stated Byrd in her op-ed, pointing to the successful campaigns of U.S. Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush, and efforts to “defund the police” currently enacted in 11 cities, as proof these young people are on the right track.
Taylor says “young Black people are rebelling against the strangulation of the status quo,” including “a stale Black leadership that regularly fails to rise to challenges confronting this generation.”
Some are rebelling by rejecting voting altogether. Many other millennials who do vote are ascribing to the “Pay-to-Play” movement led by economist Dr. Claud Anderson who contends there must be a tangible give-and-take for politicians to earn Black votes.
Still other millennials are led to reject blind allegiance to the Democrats based on the query, “What did President Obama do for Black people,” a popular question for their generation’s members.
But whether this shift is a move from one political affiliation to another, or merely a more intense focus on issues, change is afoot.
“The world can see the Black experience in America has not been grounded in democracy, in spite of contemporary Black leadership and representation in the 20th and 21st centuries, and we are seeing more and more Blacks, Latinx and other independent alliances building coalitions to move politics beyond a two-party system. It is clear in the last 60 years Black people, specifically Black women, have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have rarely had seats at the table. Blacks have anchored the party receiving little in return as far as positions and power,” said Brailey.
“Black people, particularly those in the Generation Z era, are more aware of patterns of inequality and inequity in America, so they are demanding authenticity, justice and inclusion. They are sharing information in a way that has never existed, via social media outlets, and many mindsets are shifting to embrace independence in several sectors, from politics to religion and even in building Black wealth. They want to see democracy performed in America, where everyone has a fair shot. They want Black lives to really matter in America. I think it is a matter of literally saving the soul of our nation.”
****Look for “The New Black Identity” article in this week’s upcoming Defender, focusing on the shifts from “Christian to Spiritual,” “Employees to Entrepreneurs” and “US-Centered to Global Citizens.”