Comment: Neither party is assured the loyalty of Black voters

The Party of Lincoln lost Black voters long ago, but Democrats need to act to keep African American support.

By Keith Boykin / Special To The Washington Post

The recent Census Bureau report showing the white population declining for the first time in history rang alarm bells for some Republicans and caused cheers of excitement among some Democrats.

The Republican rush this year to pass restrictive new voting laws indicates that the GOP fears the nation’s increasing diversity will benefit its opponents in the near future. For the Democrats, demographic trends look promising. As the white share of the electorate has declined in recent decades, the party has won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. And President Biden won nearly 9 out of 10 Black votes in the November 2020 election.

But Democrats would be wrong to assume that they can simply run out the demographic clock, and Republicans would be foolish to ignore their own opportunity to change the game.

In fact, history teaches us that all of this could still change, and demographics aren’t destiny.

Almost 100 years ago, in 1929, the GOP had won the presidency in seven of the previous nine elections, and Black voters overwhelmingly identified with the Republican Party. Most Americans probably didn’t anticipate the dramatic political realignment about to take place.

By the end of the decade, the federal government, under the leadership of 10 different Republican presidents from 1877 to 1929, had failed to enact any new major civil rights laws to protect Black citizens from lynching or discrimination.

A series of high-profile race massacres — East St. Louis in 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa massacre in 1921 and Florida’s Rosewood in 1923 — made clear the violent ramifications of such failures, leaving many Black voters feeling increasingly unprotected by the Party of Lincoln.

The Chicago Defender, one of the most influential Black newspapers in the country, had had enough with Republicans. A few weeks before the 1928 election, the newspaper took the unusual step of endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith over Republican nominee Herbert Hoover. “If 50 years of support to the Republican Party doesn’t get us justice, then we must of necessity shift our allegiance to new quarters,” the Defender argued. The newspaper was also concerned about Hoover’s support for the “lily white” movement in the GOP and the party’s growing affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan.

But by 1932, it was Hoover’s response to the Great Depression that caused him to lose reelection to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The new president made good on a promise to implement a “New Deal,” and it paid electoral dividends. A few years later, Oscar De Priest, a Black Republican who opposed New Deal programs and represented Chicago as the only African American in Congress, lost his seat to Black Democrat Arthur Mitchell, who supported Roosevelt’s aggressive federal intervention and rode a Democratic midterm election wave (rare for the party in control of the White House) to power. Finally, in 1935, after decades of Republican domination, Mitchell became the first African American to serve in Congress as a Democrat.

The floodgates began opening, and African Americans started leaving the Republican Party in droves. In the 1936 election, Roosevelt became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Black vote and received 71 percent of African American votes. But Roosevelt’s record was mixed, at best, as he tried to keep the party’s Southern whites within his New Deal coalition. As a result, key programs like Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act excluded agricultural and domestic workers, who were disproportionately Black. While Roosevelt was lauded for seeking the counsel of advisers known as his “Black Cabinet,” he resisted calls to appoint an African American to serve in his actual Cabinet. And when Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin, Roosevelt refused to invite him and other Black Olympians to the White House.

As the Democratic Party’s Southern-based lawmakers continued to obstruct civil rights progress, the Black vote remained competitive for the next three decades. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower won nearly 40 percent of African American votes in 1956, but Eisenhower’s success may have been more attributable to his opponent’s weaknesses than his own accomplishments. As the two parties courted white Southerners in the wake of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, both Eisenhower and Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson urged the nation to proceed cautiously on racial integration.

By 1960, the two parties had tiptoed tenuously on the emerging civil rights issues of the day. “I must make it palpably clear that the dearth of positive leadership from Washington is not confined to one political party,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced in a September 1960 speech to the National Urban League. “The fact is that both major parties have been hypocritical on the question of civil rights. Each of them has been willing to follow the long pattern of using the Negro as a political football.”

Just a month later, while King sat in a Georgia jail cell, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy placed a quick private phone call to King’s wife, Coretta, to convey his concern, and that call persuaded King’s influential preacher father, Martin Luther King Sr., to support the Democratic candidate over Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The racial realignment was finally completed when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the GOP responded by nominating Barry Goldwater for president, just a few weeks after he had broken with most of his Republican colleagues to vote against the bill. For the first time since Reconstruction, one political party delivered major concrete legislation to help Black people. African Americans took note, and many remained pleasantly surprised as Johnson went on to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Today, the roles have been reversed from the 1920s, but Black voters find themselves once again reevaluating their political alliances after giving their votes almost exclusively to the Democratic Party for six decades.

Like their ancestors from a century before, Black Americans feel increasingly unprotected in 2021 by a government that has already failed Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, George Floyd and countless others. They’ve watched their voting rights be chipped away since the Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act, and they’ve watched a mob of angry white insurrectionists try to overthrow the U.S. government.

Black voters have been the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party, but Democrats now control the White House and both houses of Congress and yet they have failed to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Instead, party leaders have prioritized universal issues like infrastructure over controversial race-specific proposals like reparations. Yes, bread-and-butter issues such as health care and wages help Black people too, but universal policies don’t eliminate centuries-old racial disparities that account for structural inequality in employment, housing, education and the criminal justice system.

And yet Republicans haven’t offered a solution either. Instead they have manufactured controversies about critical race theory, “cancel culture” and Confederate statues as they manipulate the system — the electoral college, congressional gerrymandering, lifetime judicial appointments and an unrepresentative U.S. Senate -— to grasp power as a minority party.

But here’s the thing. In the last election, Joe Biden won 92 percent of Black voters over 60 years old but only 78 percent of Black voters ages 30 to 44. Although the youngest group of Black voters, 18-29, were slightly more supportive, some young Black voters have rejected their parents’ and grandparents’ unflinching allegiance to a particular political party.

If any political party wants to win Black voters in the future, it could start by redirecting government resources to underserved Black communities and enacting legislation to eliminate racially discriminatory law enforcement practices. If Republicans want to gain our votes or Democrats want to keep them, they’ll need to introduce and implement their plans to reach true racial equality.

Keith Boykin is the author of the new book, “Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America.”

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