Is the “Black Vote” a Thing or Not?

Hillary Clinton owned the recent South Carolina primary, delivering a huge victory over Bernie Sanders. She came out on top in every county. Add to that the very large paid staff that Sanders moved into South Carolina and you see something stunning. Shift from New England to the South and Democratic voters swing significantly from Sanders to Clinton.

It’s no secret, here, that we are talking about African-American voters turning out and delivering for Clinton. TPM sums it up this way:

Exit polls showed 6 in 10 voters in Saturday’s South Carolina primary were black. About 7 in 10 said they wanted the next president to continue Obama’s policies, and only about 20 percent wanted a more liberal course of action, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of voters who are black, but the question remains as to whether or not the “black vote” is a thing or not–is there such a thing as a cohesive group of African-Americans who turn out to vote in a recognizable pattern?

I’m going to say no and suggest–there is no such thing as a monolithic black vote, despite the first impressions coming out of South Carolina. What we see phrases like “8 out of 10” needs further considering.

First off, following the observations of Steven Thrasher at The Guardian, it would seem there is a big split at the moment between black public intellectuals and black politicians:

The case against Clintonian neoliberalism is compelling. I am glad to see black thinkers making a case for Sanders’ democratic socialism and its potential to address structural racism as an alternative. If anyone is smart enough to effectively make Sanders’ case to black America, it would be the intellectual leaders who have endorsed him thus far.

Take Spike Lee. He is one of the contemporary black geniuses who have helped the nation (and me personally) reconsider race in transformative ways – and the latest to be feeling the Bern. Or Cornel West, who has been stumping for “Brother Bernie” for months. Just as I understood race differently after watching Crooklyn and Jungle Fever, I grew to understand black liberation theology and the radical potential of Christianity by reading West’s books – his influence been immeasurable. And, like much of America, I learned how to better think about the case for reparationsafter Ta-Nehisi Coates made it in the Atlantic. That’s why it matters so much that he said he would vote for Sanders.

Thrasher paints a picture of intellectual leaders who are both conversant in and convinced by Sanders’ critique of neoliberalism as leading a charge against leadership in patron-client relationship with the Clintons. Spike Lee, for example, ran a radio add in South Carolina on behalf of Sanders.  Contrast that to the various black members of Congress who turned out on the stump to show support for Clinton.

The third factor in this equation appears to be the Black Lives Matter movement and the young cohort of new leadership rising up through acts of protest, often individual statements.

Days prior to the South Carolina vote, Ashley Williams confronted Clinton at a fundraiser–demanding that Clinton answer for her use of “super predator” in the 1990s, a term that led to a brutal crackdown of young black men that many view as a product o the inherent racism of the term.

Black Congressional leadership, East and West coast intellectuals and cultural figures, young activists–add to that a variety of community leaders, including mothers of black victims of gun violence and church leaders.  The dynamic is pretty complicated. Anyone who tells you this is a single group needs to get their head checked.

But still, somehow the numbers turned out pretty high for Clinton.  Not a single group, but a huge majority came to a single conclusion.

My suspicion is that the various entities we refer to collectively as the  “black vote” is in active transformation with intellectuals and activists making small gains in South Carolina for a simple reason: they started too late.

Given time, I suspect the popularity of Sanders will start to divide the “black vote” to reflect the same divide in electorate as a whole: roughly fifty-fifty.

The one missing element, which we may or may not see in this election cycle, is a more direct confrontation between activists and elected leadership.

So far, we have seen Black Lives Matters protesters address white leadership, but we have yet to see a BLM protest aimed at black leadership. This is a very complicated step, and I suspect there are conversations ongoing about this topic in a variety of locations. This could be a step that leads to a significant shift in the landscape.

In the meantime, can Clinton’s model of support be reproduced outside of South Carolina? Probably.  And while that does not bode well for Sanders, it is a very good sign for the country as a whole.

All eyes on Super Tuesday.



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