By Theodore R. Johnson
With posters by Kennedy Prints
In the autumn of 2008, just a few weeks after my 33rd birthday, I cast a ballot for the first time. Up to that point, serving in the military seemed like more than sufficient civic engagement and provided a ready excuse for voluntarily opting out of several elections. By the time Barack Obama won the Democratic primary, I was an officer who’d spent more than a decade in the Navy and not a second in a voting booth. This apathy does not run in the blood. My parents are products of the civil rights era and the Jim Crow South, and as such religiously exercised their hard-won right to vote. In my formative years, the basic disposition of the house politics pressed together progressive demands for racial equality with the Black conservatism of marathon church services that stretched deep into Southern Sunday afternoons. We differed in degree on any number of issues, but elections were where our politics really diverged. Like much of Black America, my mother is a lifelong Democrat, staying true even as the party vacillated in and out of her good graces. My father is a somewhat perfunctory Republican, an heirloom affiliation inherited from Black Americans’ early-20th-century preference for the party of Lincoln and consecrated in the familial name carried by my grandfather, father and me: Theodore Roosevelt Johnson.
But in November 2008, all three of us checked the box for Obama, our votes helping deliver North Carolina to a Democratic presidential nominee for only the second time in 40 years. My father had crossed party lines once before, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president. Jackson’s business-size Afro, jet black mustache and Carolina preacher’s staccato cadence transformed the typically all-white affair of presidential contests. “If a Black man had the opportunity to sit in the Oval Office,” my father told me years later, “I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.”
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Jackson championed a policy agenda nowhere close to my father’s conservatism. But his rationale for supporting Jackson hinged on a basic proposition, informed by generations of Black experience in America: The thousands of lesser decisions made in rooms of power can matter far more for racial equality than campaign promises and platforms. Senator Kamala Harris crisply captured this sentiment while campaigning last year, declaring a simple truth: “It matters who’s in those rooms.” My rationale for voting for the first time was much like my father’s two decades earlier. I was not going to stand idly by if there was a chance to put a Black man in those rooms.
On the surface, my family’s choices may seem unremarkable. As David Carlin wrote in the Catholic magazine Crisis, weeks before the 2008 election: “Of course, Black voters would vote overwhelmingly for any Democratic presidential candidate, not just Obama. But they will very probably vote even more overwhelmingly for Obama.” More pernicious are the caricatures of Black Americans as self-absorbed and unthinking voters. When Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, announced that he would be endorsing Obama, the conservative media personality Rush Limbaugh criticized him for choosing race over “the nation and its welfare” and several years later suggested Powell would vote for Obama again because “melanin is thicker than water.” The conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, the Georgia state representative Vernon Jones and others have recently resurfaced the old and ugly allegation that Black people are trapped on the Democratic “plantation,” dociles practicing a politics of grievance and gratuity that makes them beholden to the party.
Near-unanimity is undeniably a persistent feature of Black voting behavior. From 1964 to 2008, according to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an average of 88 percent of Black votes went to the Democratic Party’s presidential nominees, a number that increased to 93 percent in the last three presidential elections. And yet, as my family experience demonstrates, a monolithic Black electorate does not mean uniform Black politics.
Surveys routinely show that Black Americans are scattered across the ideological spectrum despite overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. Gallup data for last year showed that just over two in five Black Americans identify as moderate and that roughly a quarter each identify as liberal or conservative. The University of Texas political scientist Tasha S. Philpot pointed out in a recent podcast interview that “there’s quite a bit of heterogeneity among Black voters that often gets masked when we just look at the outcomes of elections.”
An enduring unity at the ballot box is not confirmation that Black voters hold the same views on every contested issue, but rather that they hold the same view on the one most consequential issue: racial equality. The existence of the Black electoral monolith is evidence of a critical defect not in Black America, but in the American practice of democracy. That defect is the space our two-party system makes for racial intolerance and the appetite our electoral politics has for the exploitation of racial polarization — to which the electoral solidarity of Black voters is an immune response.
It is, however, routinely misdiagnosed. In 2016, campaigning in a Michigan suburb that is around 2 percent Black, Donald Trump prodded Black voters to give him a chance, asking: “What the hell do you have to lose?” and boasted to the nearly all-white audience: “At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote. I promise you.” Earlier this year, the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, stated matter-of-factly that “unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things.” More crudely, he told the radio host Charlamagne Tha God in May: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” (He later distanced himself from both comments.)
These characterizations belie a more ominous reality: Black Americans are canaries in the democratic coal mine — the first to detect when the air is foul, signaling the danger that lies ahead.
To be Black in America has often meant to act in political solidarity with other Black people. Sometimes those politics have been formal and electoral, sometimes they have been of protest and revolt. But they have always, by necessity, been existential and utilitarian.
Black America’s introduction to the democratic republic came via the cold calculus of the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise. A full accounting of the enslaved Black population would have empowered the states championing enslavement by giving such states more representatives in Congress and more votes in the Electoral College; a total exclusion would have expunged their personhood from the sacred text. Democracy to enslaved Black Americans thus initially presented as little more than a negotiation on how their rights and humanity could be bartered away.
When Black men were first enfranchised after the end of the Civil War, they faced a partisan politics reduced to one stark choice: Side with those who would extend more rights of citizenship to Black people or with those who would deny them. Naturally, they largely supported racially progressive Republicans who advocated for Black suffrage and representation. In Virginia, more than 100,000 freed Black men registered to vote for delegates to the convention that would help facilitate the state’s readmission to the Union. On Election Day in October 1867, 88 percent of them voted — often under the threat of job loss — securing a supermajority of convention delegates for Republicans, more than a third of whom were Black. The convention, filled by the electoral solidarity of Black voters and delegates, helped lead to the state’s successful re-entry into the United States, formalize suffrage for freedmen and extend civil rights.
The ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments codified freedmen’s participation in the electoral process at a time when upward of 90 percent of Black Americans lived in the Southern states, constituting actual or near majorities in more than a few. This led to more than 300 Black state and federal legislators in the South holding office in 1872, a level not seen again for more than 100 years. These elected officials were overwhelmingly Republicans swept into office by the unity of Black voters, who assembled to demand equality and liberty that hinged on keeping white segregationists from power.
This was the Black monolith’s forceful debut. In a thriving democracy, one aligned to the nation’s professed values, a competition for these new voters would have ensued. The monolith would have dissipated as individual Black voters sought out their ideological compatriots instead of being compelled to band against segregation and racial violence.
Instead, a campaign of white nationalist terrorism swept across the South, targeting Black Republican legislators and voters. In Georgia, the 1868 State Legislature voted to expel its Black members, all of whom were Republican. They were eventually reseated, but not before white racist vigilantes in the town of Camilla opened fire on Black marchers attending a Republican rally, killing, by some accounts, nearly a dozen and wounding dozens more. That same year in South Carolina, white vigilantes killed a number of Black legislators. One of them, Benjamin F. Randolph, was shot in broad daylight at a train station. No one was ever tried for the crime, let alone convicted of it. In the Colfax Massacre of 1873, dozens of Black Republicans and state militiamen were killed during an attempt to overturn election results in Louisiana.
Federal forces kept some of this racial terror in check, but not all of it. And white Republican leaders occasionally bowed to the violence out of political expedience. In the 1876 presidential election, 19 electoral votes in three Southern states were disputed and accompanied by voter intimidation and widespread voter fraud. In South Carolina, according to the University of Virginia historian Michael F. Holt’s book “By One Vote,” voter turnout was an absurd 101 percent.
The moderate Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote that year, but appeared to have an edge in obtaining the disputed electors, and Republican Party leaders struck a deal with Democrats that would make him president in exchange for a promise that federal troops would not intervene in Southern politics. Once in office, Hayes followed through on his pledge. The Compromise of 1877, as it is now known, effectively traded Black people’s rights for the keys to the White House. It brought Reconstruction to an end, paving the way for the Jim Crow era.
In the first century of American politics, the word “compromise” — Three-Fifths, Missouri, 1850, 1877 — was often a euphemism for prying natural and constitutional rights from Black Americans’ grip. Perhaps betrayals of one group can be labeled compromises by the others, but racial hierarchy and equal rights cannot touch without bruising. These political arrangements underscored the paradox that plagued Black America from the outset: The same federalist government charged with the delivery and defense of constitutional rights was often the means of denying them. On matters of race, the state was at once dangerously unreliable and positively indispensable.
The contours of Black politics were shaped by this quandary. The lack of faith in American democracy’s ability to do what was right undergirded Black conservatism, producing economic philosophies like Booker T. Washington’s bootstrapping self-determination; social efforts toward civic acceptance like the respectability politics of the Black church; and separatist politics like the early iterations of black nationalism. A recognition that achieving racial equality required a strong government fueled Black progressivism, which demanded anti-lynching federal legislation; eradication of the poll tax and other barriers to voting; and expansion of quality public education. Elections might have brought these strains of Black politics together, out of necessity, but did not erase the differences between them.
In the years that followed, the twin phenomena of the Great Migration and the Great Depression carried millions of Black Americans out of the South to new locales in search of physical and economic security, and by 1960, the share of the Black population residing outside of the Southern states had quadrupled to 40 percent. The Howard University political scientist Keneshia Grant has documented in her book, “The Great Migration and the Democratic Party,” how this influx of Black Americans led Northern white leaders and elected officials of both parties to devise campaign strategies and policy positions targeting Black voters.
In the 1930s through the 1950s, that electoral solidarity was hardly a given. Democrats had a progressive economic agenda that appealed to Black voters, but the party was still home to the Southern conservatives ruthlessly enforcing Jim Crow laws. The Republican Party could have mounted a concerted national effort to keep Black voters by refusing to be outflanked on civil rights policies, but its coalition of pro-business interests were less enthusiastic about the regulatory compliance burden associated with civil rights measures on employment, wages, public accommodations and housing.
Instead, Democratic national leadership made the first bold move. A year before the 1948 presidential election, noting the success of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal electoral coalition, a campaign-strategy memo drafted by Clark Clifford and James Rowe, advisers to President Truman, argued that “the Northern Negro voter today holds the balance of power in presidential elections for the simple arithmetical reason that the Negroes not only vote in a bloc but are geographically concentrated in pivotal, large and closely contested electoral states such as New York Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.” Truman’s decision to sign executive orders desegregating the military and the federal work force was an electoral broadside constructed, in part, to help win over the support of northern Black voters.
It worked. Truman won 77 percent of Black voters, and with them the Great Migration destination states of Illinois and Ohio by just a combined 40,000 votes — and these states’ electoral votes provided the margin of victory. The famous picture of the re-elected president holding up the erroneous newspaper headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” exists in large part because Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, with a solid record on civil rights, had grown suddenly lukewarm on the issue, making halfhearted appeals to Black voters in the North while increasing entreaties to white conservatives in the South.
The election outcome was proof of the new electoral advantage Black solidarity offered a party willing to deliver racially progressive policies. And the decision of many Southern Democrats, upset with the party’s formal embrace of civil rights at that year’s Democratic National Convention, to mount a third-party presidential bid that year hinted that an opposing bloc of increasingly disgruntled white segregationists was shopping for a new home.
The Democrats’ and Republicans’ national platforms in this period often addressed civil rights in nearly equal measure, and sometimes Republicans were more progressive on the question. President Dwight Eisenhower declared in the 1950s that racial segregation harmed the nation’s security interests. Deploying the 101st Airborne to enforce the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957, he warned that “our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation.” Richard Nixon held positions on civil rights similar to John F. Kennedy’s during the 1960 presidential campaign, and won nearly a third of the Black vote that year (though in the South, where the majority of the Black population still lived, Black voters were effectively barred from the polls).
It was the last time a Republican would win more than 15 percent of the Black vote in a presidential election. Stumping for Nixon in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican, declared that “there’s hardly enough difference between Republican conservatives and the Southern Democrats to put a piece of paper between.” When Goldwater became the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and voiced his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, Black voters bunched themselves into the Democratic Party for good, supporting Lyndon Johnson at a rate comparable with Barack Obama’s nearly a half-century later.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, meanwhile, greatly expanded the Black electorate — voter-registration rates among nonwhites leapt to 59.8 percent in 1967 from 6.7 percent in Mississippi; to 51.6 percent from 19.3 percent in Alabama; and to 52.6 percent from 27.4 percent in Georgia. Black turnout soared. And George Wallace’s third-party candidacy for president in 1968, running on a segregation platform and winning five states in the process, was the last gasp for segregationists operating outside of the two-party system.
Within a decade, white Southern Democrats were responding favorably to the appeals of the Republican Party. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” refrain and Ronald Reagan’s renewed call for “states’ rights” were racialized, implicitly communicating opposition to progressive policies like busing and tapping into anxieties about a rapidly integrating society. With explicitly racist appeals now socially taboo, symbolic and ostensibly colorblind gestures made the transition easier by reframing the race question as one about free-market principles, personal responsibility and government nonintervention. Racial segregation could be achieved without openly championing it; the social hierarchy maintained without evangelizing it. American voters, Black and white alike, got the message.
The Republican Party’s rightward move on race was a tremendous electoral success, winning the White House in five out of six elections from 1968 to 1992 and the Senate in consecutive elections for the first time since the onset of the Great Depression. At the same time, the Democratic Party deepened its relationship with Black voters. The electoral power of Black voters produced historic firsts, like the first elected Black governor in the nation’s history in Virginia, Douglas Wilder. Jesse Jackson lost his presidential primary runs in 1984 and 1988, but his strong showings won concessions in the Democratic Party platform. More Black members arrived in Congress, won mayoral races and set the stage for the Black political identity to become synonymous with support for Democrats. Symbolic fights, like over whether to commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday, further clarified the racial divisions between the parties.
The result was that racial polarization was now less a product of partisan philosophies about the personhood or citizenship of Black Americans and more a fact of partisan identity — and a political instrument to hold and wield power. This was a subtle but profound shift, and a dangerous one. As the University of Maryland professor Lilliana Mason writes in her 2018 book, “Uncivil Agreement,” “Partisan, ideological, religious and racial identities have, in recent decades, moved into strong alignment, or have become ‘sorted,’” such that partisan attacks can become race-based, personal and unmoored from policy disputes.
Partisan energy accordingly is hardly ever expended in an earnest competition for Black voters but rather in determining whether they can vote, tilting the axis of the issue away from the exercise of the franchise to access to it. Local election officials in Georgia closed polling stations — an action known to lead to longer lines and lower turnout — in many counties with large Black populations just before the 2018 gubernatorial election, in which Stacey Abrams was vying to become the nation’s first Black female governor against the sitting secretary of state, the Republican Brian Kemp. Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas, Alabama and elsewhere passed voter-identification requirements that are twice as likely to complicate Black voters’ access to the ballot as white voters’. An effort to purge registration rolls in Wisconsin, which has been disputed, would have a disproportionate effect on Black voters. Both parties have gerrymandered congressional districts, diluting Black electoral power. The voting-rights guardrails that are supposed to prevent these sorts of racially disparate complications have been mangled by hyperpartisanship and the rolling back of statutory protections by the courts.
Racial identity has now become fully entangled with partisanship: The Republican Party is attracting more white voters while people of color are massing in the Democratic Party. In “Steadfast Democrats,” the scholars Ismail White and Chryl Laird identified how Black voters’ desire to avoid social penalties by the group motivates party loyalty to Democrats. A 2018 study by Nicholas A. Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov, scholars with the University of Michigan at the time, found that white voters who associate the Democratic Party with Black people reported a clear preference for the Republican Party. Not only does race now split the parties more cleanly than ever, but the racial gap exacerbates partisan polarization.
And the flaw in the American version of democracy that created the Black monolith — a tolerance for political incentives that foster racial division — is spawning others like it. The voting behavior of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans, groups that are growing more rapidly than any others, is trending in a way that resembles the Black electorate from nearly a century ago. Over the last several years, the two demographics have gone from relatively close splits between the two parties in presidential elections to at least two-thirds of each now voting for the Democratic nominee. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, more than eight in 10 Black Americans identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning, and a third of the party’s members of Congress are people of color. Only half of white Americans identify with Republicans, but they account for eight in 10 members of the party. And 95 percent of congressional Republicans are white; only two are Black, and one of them, Will Hurd of Texas, is retiring this November.
In “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop,” the political scientist Lee Drutman notes that the modern American two-party system so consecrates competition that party leaders are more incentivized to disparage the other side as extreme and un-American than to compromise. Last summer, in a dispute with four Democratic congresswomen of color, the president said of the women during a White House news conference: “They hate our country. They hate it, I think, with a passion.” The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, chastising the president the day before on social media, asserted: “When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.” The line between partisanship and racial conflict has thinned.
In “How Democracies Die,” the Harvard University government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that when elected officials use the instruments of government to divide and polarize the public, destabilize institutions and demonize opponents, they can send a democracy into a death spiral. If this process begins at the ballot box, perhaps it can be halted there, too. From its earliest days, Black electoral solidarity was as an act of self-preservation, not an attempt to be the altruistic saviors of American democracy. But it is also a sober recognition that inclusion in the latter is the only means to secure the former.
Last summer in my childhood home in North Carolina, I sat with my parents in an animated discussion about the two dozen men and women — of varying ages, races, ethnicities, ideologies, socioeconomic status and experience — hoping to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. The orientation of the house politics has not changed much over the decades. My father, who cannot stomach the current iteration of the Republican Party, holds a conservatism pulling in equal measure from Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of self-help and the Black Power movement’s race pride and recognition that agents of the state can often be hurdles to equality rather than purveyors of it. My mother is less willing to let the government off the hook and insists it deliver on the race-conscious promises of equal protection it etched into its Constitution.
In a way, there is little daylight between them; each wants nothing more than a level playing field and for their individual efforts to pay off fairly. One simply leads with the belief that government should work to remove the discriminatory obstacles hindering Black America while the other believes it should address the systemic advantages enjoyed by white America. I suppose my politics were that the nation should do both, but it has been loath to commit to either.
That summer evening, we discussed the candidates’ differing approaches to health care, how (or whether) they talked about racial economic disparities, the importance of criminal-justice and education reforms and who among the contenders had the best chance at winning the White House. When the conversation ended and the tenor of the house mellowed — cable news replaced with soul music, soul food and laughter that’s good for the soul — oddly, I felt comforted by the realization that we’d reached no consensus.
Deliberation is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. A people that does not seriously deliberate about its nation and its leaders is a people ill suited to the task of providing the consent from which government derives its power. For Black voters, agency and political freedom are luxuries they have never fully enjoyed.
It didn’t have to be this way. There have been moments in history in which better leaders and better people would have competed for Black America’s increasing electoral power instead of organizing against it. Rutherford Hayes could have strengthened the presence of federal troops in the South and kept Democrats’ sanctioned racial terrorism at bay. Dewey could have refused to exchange leadership on civil rights for support from business interests and Southern conservatives. The Republican Party could have followed through on its own calls for party diversification after losing the 2012 presidential election instead of lurching in the opposite direction. But for a nation deeply divided on race relations, the easy and more politically expedient strategy has always won out.
We will know our nation is on the right path toward building a healthier and more resilient democracy when the monolith dissipates. Should Black Americans ever secure the freedom to vote according to their politics instead of against those who believe civil rights protections are excessive and burdensome, it will signal that our country has rediscovered the resolve required to overcome the historical effects of racism on our society today.
For our democracy to reach its final form, the answer cannot be that one party has tried to answer the call — it must be that each party does so and without penalty. A young John Lewis made this argument in 1963 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. In his impassioned speech, he channeled the frustrations of Black America and excoriated the nation’s partisan democracy for posturing on race relations instead of taking revolutionary action to realize the promise of America. His rhetorical questions still ring true today as racial justice protests continue in every state in the Union: “Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?”
Posters photographed by Garrett Maclean
Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is the author of “When the Stars Begin to Fall,” to be published by Grove Atlantic in the spring, which lays out a case for national solidarity as one counter to the effects of racism. He is a retired military officer and served as a White House fellow during the Obama administration.
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