In the years that followed the 2012 elections, you could have been forgiven for thinking America’s political class believed that Hispanic voters cared about one thing and one thing only: immigration reform. The need to establish a legal pathway to residency or citizenship for the country’s illegal population dominated every discussion of what Latino voters wanted from policymakers. This idea persisted right up until the 2016 election, when Donald Trump implausibly won more Hispanic votes than Mitt Romney.
The statistical evidence that Hispanic voters did not think and behave as a bloc was apparent well before the president bet his electoral fortunes on the prospect, but it took the shock of 2016 for that complexity to become apparent to federal officeholders. Today, everyone has gotten the message save the most pandering social-justice activists, who continue to refer to Hispanic-Americans collectively as “Latinx,” a word that non-Hispanics use to demonstrate how in-touch they are with Hispanics, but which is rejected by those it is supposed to describe.
Could today’s progressive social reformers be making a similar mistake with how they approach black voters? Probably not, insofar as African-American voters are more reliably Democratic than the varied array of ethnicities and cultures that make up the “Hispanic vote” in the United States. And yet, after listening to the 2020 candidates discuss race in America, you might come away with the idea that black voters are of one mind on that issue, and that mind is racially hyper-consciousness and oriented toward reparative justice.
One by one, during Friday night’s debate, the Democratic Party’s presidential aspirants sought to demonstrate their bona fides by proclaiming America indelibly—perhaps irredeemably—racist, and advocated reparative policies to level the playing field. Bernie Sanders insisted that the U.S. is “a racist society from top to bottom.” Joe Biden claimed that the nation’s institutions are plagued by “systemic racism.” Pete Buttigieg agreed, adding that “systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system.” Per her brand, Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. “We need race-conscious laws in education, in employment, in entrepreneurship to make this country a country for everyone,” she said. For his part, Tom Steyer pledged to make the New York Times’ “1619 Project” policy by establishing a “formal commission on race” to “retell the story of the last 400 years in America of systematic racism against African Americans.”
That’s certainly an attractive platform for progressives of every demographic stripe, but is it one that will speak to most black voters? African Americans are justifiably gloomy about the state of race relations in America. Most do not trust this president, perceive racial harmony to be in decline, and report having experienced discrimination in their lives. But are they amenable to the “race-conscious laws” Sen. Warren advocated? Not necessarily.
Take Affirmative Action, for example. In theory, an overwhelming number of black voters support affirmative-action programs for minorities (though, according to Gallup, that number has declined while support has increased dramatically among whites). And when you drill down into the specifics, the policy becomes markedly less popular among African Americans. When Gallup surveyed the landscape, following a 2016 Supreme Court case that affirmed the constitutionality of using race and ethnicity to make college admissions decisions, non-Hispanic blacks were by far the most hostile toward the decision. Only 35 percent approved of the ruling. Fifty percent disapproved of colleges using admissions criteria that were not based on merit alone. Fifty-seven percent said race and ethnicity should not be admissions factors “at all.” The Pew Research Center confirmed that this apprehension was not limited to college admissions. When asked if “companies and organizations” should take race and ethnicity into account when making “decisions about hiring and promotions,” 54 percent of African-American respondents said no.
Likewise, just about every 2020 Democratic campaign promised to “study” the issue of monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves. Before he dropped out, Cory Booker was the most forceful in his support for an outcome of that “study” that would support such a program. Former Massachusetts Mayor Deval Patrick is prepared to “offer explicit support for federal reparations,” according to Axios. The traction these candidates have generated among African-American Democrats tells you all you need to know about how the party’s primary voters respond to these overtures. Despite being the primary beneficiaries of this proposal, a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 52 percent of black respondents backed slavery reparations. A 2016 Marist University poll showed 58 percent of African Americans would support such a measure.
A March 2019 Pew survey showed that, while “drug addiction” was chosen by every major American demographic as an urgent problem facing the nation today, black Americans’ priorities diverged from those of their white and Hispanic counterparts. Seventy-five percent cited “racism” as one of the most pressing matters before policymakers, but a similar 72 percent cited “violent crime”—well ahead of how their white and Hispanic counterparts view the issue. This disparity could explain why, according to the latest national survey of Democrats via Quinnipiac University, Mike Bloomberg secures the support of a staggering 22 percent of black primary voters, just behind Joe Biden’s 27 percent.
Among progressives for whom Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy amounts to codified racial discrimination and harassment, this is a confounding result. But Bloomberg’s $200 million advertising campaign is dedicated mostly to promoting the former New York City mayor’s record of preventing gun crime. For African-American voters, the latter issue may be a more tangible priority than amorphous promises to ameliorate racism through public awareness campaigns. That dynamic could also contribute to a 2017 Marist survey’s results, which showed that nearly three-in-ten black voters were withholding judgment on or were outright opposed to the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement, which advocates against the aggressive over-policing of minority communities.
Pew’s expansive study of U.S. race relations showed that what might be the most revealing discrepancy between the world as it is and the one progressives imagine is the extent to which race is a dominant factor in Americans’ private spaces. “How often, if ever, did your family talk to you about challenges you might face because of your race or ethnicity?” the pollster asked. “Seven-in-ten black adults who attended college say their family had these conversations at least sometimes, compared with 57 [percent] of those with a high school education or less.” That disparity might seem like a minor one, but the 2017 census found that only 23 percent of African Americans are four-year college degree holders.
It’s possible, even likely, that Republican partisans have made too much of Donald Trump’s outreach to black voters, but Democrats would suffer at the polls either by failing to win black voters or by losing them. As Hillary Clinton learned, it’s a fine distinction between not turning out on Election Day and voting Republican. And by regarding black voters as a monolith consumed by what progressives believe should be their concerns, much of which are race-specific, they might be courting more risk than reward.