SYNDICATED COLUMN: What’s Up with Black Voters?

Thomas Frank made a splash a decade ago with a bestseller called “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” In his book Frank attempted to answer the question: why do so many Americans — working-class Americans — vote against their economic and social interests — i.e., Republican?

I’ve been thinking about Frank a lot lately. Beginning with the Southern states on Super Tuesday and continuing through Tuesday’s important New York primary, the crucial support of black voters has created a “firewall” for Hillary Clinton against the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race for president. Yet Sanders is far more liberal than Clinton, and has a far better record on black issues than she does.

What’s going on? Why are so many black Americans voting against their own interests — i.e., for a Democrat in Name Only?

Sanders, the liberal radical, in the race, carries white states. Clinton, the conservative incrementalist, carries those that are more ethnically diverse. In New York this week, the pattern continued (though there’s strong evidence the primary was stolen by Clintonista-Cuomoite henchmen, but that’s another story). According to exit polls, Hillary carried 75% of African-Americans in New York, compared to 49% of whites. Because it’s uncomfortable for liberals to talk about, no one much does. But the data is clear.

There is a glaring racial divide within the Democratic Party.

This appears to be new. On November 7, 1984, posters went up in my old neighborhood, the Manhattan Valley section of upper Manhattan. They were printed by the city Democratic Party, thanking residents for voting for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan at the highest rate in the United States. Then as now, the area was diverse: predominantly Latino, with many blacks and, due to nascent gentrification, a growing white presence. We were all — young white people like me, young people of color, middle-aged people of color, old people of color — on the same page politically: as far left as allowed by law. If there’d been a Bernie Sanders on the ballot in 1984, he would have gotten 99% of Manhattan Valley.

Things have changed over the last 32 years. It’s hard to tell when or how or why. Howard Dean and John Edwards (both insurgent liberals who had trouble attracting black votes) included, Democratic Party politics hasn’t seen any major candidate as left or progressive as Bernie Sanders during that period (really, since George McGovern in 1972). Until now, it’s been hard to clearly perceive the race gap.

Privately, many of Sanders’ supporters are paraphrasing Thomas Frank: what, they wonder, is going on with black people? If the Democratic primary campaign were based on the issues and the candidates’ personal histories, we’d expect blacks to be a key voting bloc for Bernie, not Hillary.

On racial justice issues, Bernie is a zillion times better than Hillary.

During the Civil Rights movement in 1963, Bernie Sanders got arrested to protest housing segregation and traveled to the March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was an “active young Republican and, later, a Goldwater girl.” Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act.

Sanders has consistently championed racial equality and fought poverty and income disparity, two economic scourges that hurt blacks worse than anyone else. As First Lady, Clinton pushed her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which accelerated mass incarceration of blacks. (Though she and Bill now admit it went too far, neither have proposed actually doing something to fix it, like letting those sentenced under the law out of prison.) She also backed “welfare reform,” which drastically increased extreme poverty, especially among blacks. And while running for president in 2008, she was the only candidate who said she wouldn’t end the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Hillary is essentially a Republican.

Since when do blacks vote Republican?

One possible answer is name recognition. Hillary Clinton has been a boldface name in politics since 1993. As recently as September, 38% of all Americans had never heard of Bernie Sanders. But that doesn’t explain the race gap. Sanders was an obscure figure to whites and blacks alike.

Another is class. Influenced by Marx, Old Left Democrats like Sanders see racism, sexism and other forms of oppression as subsets of class warfare by ruling elites against the rest of us. Today’s Democrats have abandoned class analysis in favor of identity politics.

So even though she’s wealthy, devotees of identity politics see Hillary Clinton as a victim of oppression because she’s a woman. Even though he’s Jewish and middle-class, identitarians consider Bernie Sanders a privileged white male. Perhaps this is why some black voters relate to her more than the old guy.

Then there’s a factor so ugly that many of us on the left don’t like to discuss it: black anti-Semitism. According to Anti-Defamation League surveys, anti-Semitism is significantly more widespread among African-American and Latino voters than the population as a whole. Some black voters may be holding Bernie’s Jewishness against him.

Ageism may play a role too: in part thanks to obvious plastic surgery, Hillary, 68, looks younger than Bernie, 74. But are blacks more ageist than white millennials?

Interesting speculation. But let’s look at what we know about how Democrats chose their candidates in New York. Hillary voters told pollsters they prioritized (in order) experience, electability (though Bernie is actually more electable) and continuing Obama’s policies.

Bernie voters said the factors they most cared about were honesty and trustworthiness, and policies more liberal than Obama’s.

There’s more than a whiff of the identity politics explanation there. Obama has been weak on racial issues. Understandably, many black voters nevertheless value his historical import as the first black president and remain loyal to him, despite his inaction on things that matter to them. Hillary was, of course, Obama’s secretary of state. And she invokes him all the time.

The (false) belief that Hillary is more electable than Bernie is, I think, the most underappreciated factor driving black support for her. The Rev. Al Sharpton ran for president in 2004. After he got trounced in the South Carolina primary, people wondered why a state with so many blacks delivered so few votes for the one black candidate in the race. One answer was instructive:

“The black vote is looking for a winner and they are not looking to make a statement about race. John Kerry is one of the whitest guys, you know what I mean,” David Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, told The New York Times at the time. For blacks, beating Bush was job one.

Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently made a similar point, that in order to survive blacks (especially in the South) have had to be cautious. Black voters think Hillary is better known and thus, in their opinion, more electable.

This year, black Democrats may be trying to make a statement about race, while being cautious. They may instead wind up increasing the chances of a victory by Donald Trump.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)


17 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: What’s Up with Black Voters?

  1. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are both quintessential politicians. Bill painted himself as the ‘First Black President.’ In spite of pushing through laws that put huge numbers of African Americans in jail. Bill was perceived as doing more for African-Americans than any other president. Hillary is getting a larger percentage of the African-American vote in ’16 than Obama got in ’08, because a significant minority of African-Americans remembered how good Bill had been for them, but the majority supported the African-American candidate. Now, almost all African-Americans are voting to make Hillary the Democratic nominee. And all because Bill knew how to get rich, influential African-Americans to reiterate to the African-American working class that Bill was the best President for African-Americans who had ever been elected. And they were (and are) convinced.

    I saw Bill saying that his bills that locked up 40% of African-American men, meaning 20% of all African-Americans, kept the 80% safe, since most crimes against African-Americans are committed by African-Americans, and Clinton said he’s proud that he kept the 80% safe by locking up the 20% who are heinous, violent felons. Not true, but accepted by the African-Americans who are not in jail and who can vote.

    During his first term, Obama deported more Hispanics than any other president in one term, but he got rich, influential Hispanics to tell the Hispanic community (en Español) that Obama was only deporting violent felons, not those who had committed no crime (but it’s a felony to be in the US without papers). And so most Hispanics voted for Obama in ’08 and ’12. Somehow, they were kept unaware of the facts.

    So Hillary is winning the same way Ma Ferguson got to be governor of Texas: because Pa was a great politician whom most voters wanted as governor, but the Texas legislature passed a law that Pa could never be governor again, so the people elected Ma on her platform, ‘Two governors for the price of one.’

    It’s Bill who is pulling in all the African-American votes, not Hillary, and he’s doing it because he knows how it’s done: by getting rich, powerful, influential African-Americans to swear that the Clintons have done and will do more for African-Americans than any other president!

  2. Ted,

    I don’t think it’s a race issue. At least, not solely. I think it’s more of a “perfect storm” of economics, religion, conservatism and, lastly, racial issues. Try it without the racial component. In Alabama (or any other rust belt state), why did lower income, highly religious (in the sense that church or religious activity was a significant part of the person’s life) conservative people vote for Clinton? Leave race out of it. Not because I’m doing one of those “race is an artificial construct” arguments (race is an artificial construct, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make). But because race is incidental (Or a distant fourth) in this case.

    I think it’s more likely that someone who is all three voted for Clinton. I think race, of itself, is a red herring.

  3. > anti-Semitism is significantly more widespread among African-American and Latino

    It’s a sad commentary on humanity as a whole. We all want to feel superior, and those of us who feel like others look down upon us search for someone we can look down upon in turn.

  4. I asked my boyfriend (black) why black voters supported Hillary, and he responded, “because they have their heads up their a**e*.”

    I suspect you’re right though, it’s because they believe she’s going to win. They want to vote for a winner, even if that person is going to give them less of what they want. Better something than nothing….

    • I’ve been chewing all this over for months now. I think the best I can come up with is that there is a sort of disconnect — a cognitive dissonance.

      Here’s statements I have found not one single Democrat to disagree with:
      1. The middle class is getting screwed.
      2. The environment is worsening due to climate change.
      3. Jobs are being outsourced and with that economic uncertainty comes a lot of troubles.
      4. Health care should be available to all.

      Here’s statements HRC’s supporters make that differ from those of Sanders’ supporters:
      1. Slow, gradual change (incrementalism, triangulation) will work.
      2. Gradual improvements to decrease carbon dioxide emissions are going to save the planet.
      3. Economic “disruptors” actually drive job creation.
      4. Obamacare is the way forward in healthcare.

      Here’s facts:
      1. Triangulation has not worked in 40 years. If it had worked, we would not be in the current situation. Wages would not have stagnated (or decreased) for the majority of the 99%.
      2. The majority of climate scientists are saying the same two things: 1. the current agreements aren’t doing enough, and, 2. we have just about run out of time to fix this and must engage in really significant processes to minimize the damage.
      3. The job “disruptors” are wiping out far more jobs than they are creating and those created jobs are mostly garbage. Everyone can’t be a neurosurgeon. Everyone can’t spent two years in “retraining” for an entry-level skillset that will be obsolete before then finish the coursework. A healthy economy requires a wide range of jobs, from street sweep to rocket scientist for people throughout their working lifetimes.
      4, Dozens of countries have universal, single-payer health care. It is a proven system. It will work because it has worked, over and over.

      None of the “facts” can be disputed fairly. But the facts and the HRC camp disagree. And I think the reason people prefer HRC’s message is because, deep down, they know she’s lying, but they see themselves among “the elect.” They want the world in which they are among the preferred.

      Clinton knows triangulation won’t work. She knows climate fixing would require we all give up our nice toys. Who wants to work in a world where everyone has a job? Let me be one of the few lucky ones with a job and to hell with everyone else. Health care? God, please, let the sick die off already. Stop burdening me with their complaints.

      And that, I think, is why people are picking her. Because they think, somehow, magically, they will be in the small group that gets all the rewards while everyone else is cast out into the wilderness.

      • Excellent post Alex. Hope you try running for political office to have a platform from which to speak.

  5. I think it is the political machines. I think the political machines still a lot of pull – especially amongst the black population. Hillary knows payola and she will deliver. She has been working on them for a number of years now. So now she has the political machine behind her.

    I was in SC during both primaries. The Republican one was a circus with signs and events everywhere. The Democratic one was strangely quiet. If I had not know better, I would not have thought there was primary race even occurring. SC holds their primaries on Saturdays of two different weekends. The Republic one went first. During the Democrat primary there were polling stations in predominately republican locations that were reporting more voter turnout within their first two hours than they had all day with the Republican one.

    How does a quiet primary outperform a highly contest one within a few hours on a Saturday morning? Political machines was my best answer to the question. I think Bernie had lost SC and similar locations before he was even a candidate. The primary just made it official.

  6. I have a little joke: Black people are no smarter than white people.

    What that means is I have no idea. I have not found anything that Clinton stands for that any even moderate liberals (black or white) stand for except the belief that she can win and Sanders can’t. Which as you point out the polls seem to contradict.

    On the other hand I have run across people who are not paid Clinton partisans, who are rabid for her and yet, offer no real reason (other than that she will win). When I point out that this kind of governance hasn’t done the middle or working classes a lot of good for the last 40 years, I am told I am naive and simply don’t understand realpolitic.

    There is of course those who say that she will be a major change for equality because she is a woman. I point out that neither Thatcher nor Indria Ghandi were real forces for change, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

    It is a puzzelment.

    • Ultimately, it’s the “Color-of-Money.” The predatory development of capitalist consumerism has no race or sexual orientation, but its racist sexism does dominate the popular media. In its cooperative alliance with Political Correctness, it’s all winking and nodding.

      It’s not that the Trumptster is communicating in such a sexist and racist manner, it’s just that he’s doing it in such a politically incorrect fashion.

      And as far as America’s “Negros” go? Hillary will be just as good for them as Bubba was back-in-the-day (which of course in the whole term means, not very).


  7. Minorities believe that only the candidate who is supported by the Democratic establishment (currently HRC, previously BHO) will have the money and organization to beat the White Man’s GOP Party.

    Clinton’s ties to the super-rich supporters of the Democratic Party are seen as assets in what the minority voters perceive as an eternal war against the Republican/White Man’s, racist Party and its billionaires.

    As they watch our militarized police shoot-to-kill with impunity, watch the prison complex fill up with their friends and family, watch their voting rights disappear, remember what happened to the Black Power Movement, and recall the stories told about the Jim Crow south, the KKK and the brutal lynchings made into postcards and mailed across the U.S. — they cannot afford to buck the Democratic establishment — and I don’t blame them. As a professional white man, I can afford to vote for Bernie or Jill Stein or libertarian, because if the GOP wins, it won’t change my way of living. But I know that my minority brothers and sisters are terrified of the GOP.

    The liberal white folk support the Democratic establishment for several reasons:
    1. They suffer from Stockholm Syndrome;
    2. They actually trust the leadership of the Democratic Party;
    3. They place loyalty above principles;
    4. They remember George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich et al., and think that only the establishment candidate can win.
    5. They are either ignorant or apathetic about the crimes committed by the leadership of the Democratic Party and supported by most of the elected Democratic politicians — or perhaps they write it off as the lesser evil compared to the ones committed by the GOP.

  8. As a (mostly) white dude, I’m usually careful about commenting on race issues, since, like sex, the comments usually end up revealing more about oneself than enlightening everyone else.

    But despite my (mostly) white appearance, I have more than “Elizabeth Warren levels” of Native American ancestry that caused me to spend a significant amount of time in the college library, decades ago, reading about the atrocities committed upon American “Indians” by whites/Europeans. This informal “research” did much to awaken my race and class consciousness — especially the books that discussed how whites attempted to wipe away Native American culture from history …

    Despite the fact that the blood of the ancestors to whom these atrocities were committed runs through my veins, I have no genetic memory of it. I must go to the library and read about it. And unfortunately, I suspect some of the same is also true with Blacks.

    While it’s tempting to want to run up to the nearest Black person and ask: “Didn’t 300 years of slavery teach you anything ?”, I suspect the efforts of whites to wipe the history of slavery from both white and black consciousness has been somewhat too successful.

    And this, more than anything, points to the truth about how equal we really are — equally less than smart — whites foolish enough to create and perpetuate slavery, and blacks foolish enough to fail to learn the lessons from it …

  9. You can write off the black vote. Don’t call the p.c. police; I’m black but didn’t drink the kool-aid. The black masses have been brainwashed since birth by the black misleadership class that the road to success, progress, Heaven, etc is via voting Democrat. It doesn’t help that the presstitute media provides no voices that question the official narrative. The misleadershippers are firmly in the back pocket of the Democrat party powers that be. Said powers want Killary so the misleadership class dutifully herds the bleeple into Killary’s slaughterhouse. As with Barry Obomber (and every other Democrat of the past zillion years), the black masses will make no demands of Killary with regards to jobs, social safety net, housing, education,etc. When things turn to crap, as usual, they will blame Republicans, Fox News, racism, and the related right wing scarecrows while remaining blissfully ignorant (or willfully with head in sand) that the Democrats are working hand in glove with Republicans to screw them over. As for the anti-Semitism angle, over half of the black masses don’t even know Sanders is Jewish so that isn’t a factor. These folks are big time sheeple; if Jesse, Al, Oprah, etc are talking Killary, Bernie doesn’t have a chance. Sad but true.