Black Movements Should Not = Reduced Black Political Power

The latest Twitter-fueled "#ADOS" prompts a look at diminished Black electoral strength

Publisher’s Riff

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Reparations and Black Americans' Attitudes About Race

by Charles Ellison | #RealityCheck WURD | @ellisonreport

Social justice movements, a time ago, were once called “civil rights movements.” The latter reference seems to have fallen out of rhetorical favor, particularly among younger generations, as it has been accused of being too soft and conciliatory. That assertion - parts true, parts misunderstood - stems from years of watching the Black political space evolve and mature from that civil rights legacy. However, while watching that evolution, many lost or never secured a firm grasp of the fact that all movements are unsuccessful without a winning political calculus and strategy. The same rule applies to social justice movements of the hear and now: protest is the bark, but the central role protesters play as voters in pivotal elections is the real bite. Favorable policy outcomes are only realized after political inputs (sweat, candidate grooming, campaigns, advocacy, targeted lobbying, fundraising, voter mobilization etc.) and outputs (candidate wins).

In essence: political losers don’t craft or shape policy. Political winners do.

In 1988, the late and great Black political scientist Ronald Walters wrote “Black Presidential Politics in America,” a good read and, arguably, the original guidebook on how Black America could achieve real political power and, as a result, community empowerment, through savvy navigation in that political space. Walters, advising Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 game-changing presidential bids, was spot on and somewhat prescient in his analysis. Fast forward to 2019 and we see two interesting trends that, in the electoral context, arguably result into a regression of that analysis: during the 2016 presidential election cycle it was #BlackLivesMatter and the fight against police violence, and in the 2020 cycle it’s now #ADOS or “American Descendants of Slavery” and the fight for reparations.

We won’t go into a deeper analysis of either movement’s origins or their influence on public discourse, culture and politics (as hip hop legend and ADOS target Talib Kweli did here, quite thoroughly, in April). ADOS seems to have supplanted Black Lives Matter as the new, sensational Black flavor of the upcoming election, while Black Lives Matter - always decentralized - became relatively quiet after 2016, and somewhat more localized with forays into politics (and a few wins) after realizing (perhaps too late) that political and voter mobilization should have been a key plan from the start.

What we will point out is that these two events coincide with a much more troubling and sinister trend: the precipitous decline of Black voter share - and, therefore, influence - in recent national election cycles.

Black voter participation, or the Black share of the total voting population, has diminished since 2012, where it was the last time it peaked at a high of 13 percent, matching its official U.S. population count. That was also the last election of President Barack Obama …

But, by the 2014 midterms, Black voter share dropped 1 full percentage point to 12 percent …

That wasn’t as noticed since it was 2 percentage points higher than the previous 2010 midterm cycle where Black voter share was just 10 percent. However, Republicans - increasingly unfriendly to Black political interests, especially during the Obama presidency - regained the Senate for the first time since 2006, expanded their majority in the House and successfully engineered the largest Republican majority on the state legislative, gubernatorial and federal level in a century.

But, in the 2016 presidential election cycle, Black voter share of the electorate stayed flat at 12 percent - one percentage point lower than its performance in the last presidential election and at a time when it was needed the most …

Tragically, as Pew shows, Black voter participation sharply decreased, even as White participation slightly increased …

Black voter share of the electorate declined a percentage point below it’s U.S. population share. It was also declining at a time White voter participation showed a slight decline, too (so, instead of increasing to further offset White political influence since that was the prime moment to do it, Black votes decreased, too). Interestingly enough, Latino voter share increased by one percentage point since 2012.

Granted, the 2014 and 2016 elections also marked moments where Republicans aggressively inserted voter suppression strategies into their campaign arsenal. While the full impact of voter suppression on Black turnout hasn’t been completely assessed, we do know Black votes were lost as a result of that. But, voter suppression was also prevalent in the 2012 election and, yet, despite that, Black voters managed to achieve record turnout numbers and an electoral share that was proportional to their share of the overall population. The 2012 election cycle proved that even when voter suppression is a factor, Black voters can be motivated and mobilized in such a way that offsets the impact.

2016 was also the year of a Black Lives Matter movement that, without any coherent political goals, did not encourage - and in some cases actively discouraged - Black voter activation and mobilization. Hence, Black Millennial voter participation fell - a stunning 5 percentage points compared to 2012 - and was the only Millennial demographic that lowered its participation rate.

Millennial and Gen X voter turnout increased in 2016 ... and among Millennials, black turnout decreased

By 2018, even with overall voter turnout trending upward, Black voter share slightly decreased again to another full percentage point drop to 11 percent of national voter share (White voter share actually increased from 2016)

YouGov shows 21 percent of Black voters claiming they did not vote in the 2018 elections. While that was the lowest non-voter percentage compared to White and Latino peers, it’s still a rather high number for a demographic group who can afford that non-voting behavior the least …

What will happen in 2020? YouGov indicates 11 percent of Black voters saying they won’t vote …

Pew early estimates what looks like an upward tick in Black voter share at 12.5 percent in 2020, with Latino share rising substantially to 13.3 percent, which will be more than Black voter share for the first time (but, still not reaching or matching its overall U.S. population share).

Hispanics projected to become largest minority group in electorate in 2020

Still, there are worries that a very noisy #ADOS movement could inflict self-defeating non-electoral strategy by actively discouraging Black voter mobilization for Democratic candidates against Trump. That is something to watch. Because, so consequential is this upcoming election that it should be only natural to expect near total — if not total — registered and eligible Black voter turnout by electoral D-Day. Collective Black attention to it must be heightened beyond those already a part of the “super voter,” advocacy champion, campaign and political class. And we do see an encouraging growth spurt of competitive Black candidates on the state and federal level.

Nothing will send as strong a signal, a message and a blow to anything Trump and enabling Republican politicians are doing than an election with full participation from all corners of the electorate. Hurling insults and making fashion statements don’t hurt elected officials — electoral outcomes do. Turning Trump’s name into profanity doesn’t hurt him in any shape or form; but, completely overhauling the partisan composition in Washington truly does.

Polls show reason for concern. Over the past eight elections, 43 percent of registered Black voters have been “non-voters” according to a 2018 NPR analysis, compared to 13 percent who are classified as “frequent voters” (voting consistently in 6 of the last 8 elections). Income is also a prime determinant of turnout: those making less than $30,000 annually are nearly 60 percent of non-voters, and those making $30,000 — $75,000 are nearly 30 percent of non-voters.

Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls before the 2018 midterms also reflected some alarming trends for Democrats just ahead of those elections, with nearly 9 percent of Black voters between the ages of 18–29 saying they will “not vote,” along with 12 percent who “don’t know” — which could very well mean they’re afraid to admit they’re not voting.

Movements are very healthy and productive. And, if their goal is to improve and enhance citizen quality of life, especially for under-advantaged groups, they are coming from a good place. Communities need movements, they are essential. But, movements achieve nothing if they are apolitical. Movements lacking political infastructure, strategy and outlook become failures. If they are existing and operating within civil society constructs then they’ve accepted that they have to thrive, maneuver and attempt success through the use and manipulation of those rules - unless they had intended, all along, to operate as anarchistic and lawless. Generally speaking, movements are not successful when they refuse or have not generated electoral assets and back-up. Real opportunities to achieve any real “tangibles” - as one recent social media-driven movement phrases it - are only found in the political space … if the real goal is to shape or transform policy. Any movement not pursuing that is not really a movement and should be eyed with suspicion.