In Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, a young protester told a reporter that she just didn’t think voting is “how change happens.”
“They’ve been telling us to do that for so long,” she added, “and we’ve done it — and look at everything that’s still going on.”
Fury over the cruel death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody, combined with fear of a deadly virus and its painful economic impact, make this a dark, dizzying moment in our national life. But African-Americans shouldn’t feel hopeless, because the black vote does matter — it has never mattered more. It is at the heart of the fight to take back America.
The biggest story of 2020 politics is hard to ignore. But somehow it is being ignored.
The black vote now defines American politics.
Joe Biden would be retired if not for the black vote. Black voters made him the Democrats’ presidential nominee. In November, the number of black voters who turn out in the crucial swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is likely to be the deciding factor in the election. That means black voters, 12 percent of the national electorate, are set to pick our next president.
Black women, the most reliable activist base of the party, are this year’s version of the stars of past campaigns — Soccer Moms and Blue Collar Moms. The best illustration of this power is a black woman asking Jim Clyburn, her South Carolina congressman, who he planned to vote for in the primary. He said Joe Biden and followed up with a public endorsement: “We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
Mr. Biden went on to blow out the competition in South Carolina and easily win the rest of the South. Two top competitors with no traction among black voters, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, dropped out and endorsed him.
The party’s sudden consolidation around Mr. Biden abruptly ended a confusing race that many feared was hurtling toward an open convention. Few had seen it coming. Mr. Biden looked boring in comparison with the impassioned Bernie Sanders and the furious Donald Trump. Yet polls consistently showed that in a general election matchup, it was Mr. Biden who held the highest margin of victory over Mr. Trump.
There are many reasons for black voters to like Mr. Biden — his record on judicial appointments and voting rights during his long tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee; his work on federal stimulus spending after the recession and on Obamacare; and of course his service as vice president to the nation’s first black president.
But beating Mr. Trump tops the list. For black voters, the prospect of four more years of this administration is about more than politics.
It is a reaction born of real fear — of the racism that led a white man to shoot Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and a white police officer to press his knee into the neck of George Floyd in Minnesota, of the racism that every day results in more black people dying of the coronavirus. African-Americans see this, and they see a president who does nothing to stop it.
Contrary to the image created by news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests, 43 percent of black voters are moderates. A quarter identify as conservatives. These are the black people in church on Sunday. They are proud members of a sorority or fraternity.
Russian trolls recognized the power of these voters. “No single group” was targeted more than African-Americans, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report on interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The Russians wanted to drive down black enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. But they also worked to deepen the black-white divide to increase white turnout for the Republican Party.
Their bots and trolls depicted black Americans as synonymous with the loudest activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. They amplified Mr. Trump’s tactic of appealing to “forgotten” white voters by demonizing blacks and Latinos, suggesting they bring crime and bad schools into white neighborhoods and contribute to the flight of American jobs.
The strategy seems to have succeeded.
In 2016, while white turnout went up, “the black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” according to the Pew Research Center.
President Trump, too, recognizes the power of the black vote. After his upset win in 2016, he said: Blacks “didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was big — so thank you to the African-American community.”
Today he continues putting his attention and campaign money into diminishing the impact of black voters.
First, he wants to attract more than the 8 percent of the black vote he won in 2016. He likes to cite low unemployment statistics as evidence that he is a good president for black Americans. Of course, black unemployment fell to 7.5 percent from 16.8 percent under President Obama; it fell two more points under Mr. Trump before skyrocketing in the course of the pandemic.
But if he can’t get them to vote for him, he’d like to keep them from voting at all.
Mr. Trump is opposed to mail-in voting, even during the pandemic, saying it is fertile ground for fraud. But his real concern seems to be that making voting easier in any way means more members of minorities will vote, and vote for Democrats. In March he was explicit in saying “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if mail-in voting were allowed. Last week he doubled down, tweeting that it would “lead to the end of our great Republican Party.”
(In fact, there is no evidence of widespread mail-in voting fraud, many states already allow it, and some studies suggest that it actually helps Republicans.)
Third, Mr. Trump is trying to assure suburban white female voters that they shouldn’t fear being labeled racist if they vote for him.
White women moved away from the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms in part in reaction to Mr. Trump’s bully-boy behavior and the racial division he encourages. They didn’t want to be seen as some of those “fine people,” as Mr. Trump described the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
During the Super Bowl, white women and blacks were the target audience of a high-priced ad centered on the president’s decision to commute the prison sentence of a black woman who had been in jail for 21 years for a nonviolent drug conviction. Then, during his 2020 State of the Union address, he celebrated a former member of the Tuskegee Airmen and featured a black woman and her daughter who received an academic scholarship.
But anyone who remembers Mr. Trump’s record of disrespect toward women, and black women in particular, isn’t going to fall for this act.
He told four congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in the United States, that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He called Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, a “low-IQ person” and Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former aide, a “dog.” He said one black reporter was a “loser” and another asked “a lot of stupid questions.”
“His supporters are right — he does attack everyone,” Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Washington Post. “But there’s also a clear commonality in the attacks he levels against people of color and black professionals. These are straight out of historic playbooks about black workers and professionals in particular — not being qualified, not being intelligent or having what it takes to succeed in a predominantly white environment.”
After three years of Mr. Trump as president, 65 percent of black people say it is a “bad time” to be black in America, according to a January Washington Post-Ipsos poll. Just as dispiriting, most black people now say white Americans “do not understand” the discrimination they face. That applies to white Democrats as well as white Republicans.
The sense of racial isolation is fueled by the high incidence of hate crimes against black people — as well as against Latinos and Jews.
And then there is the anxiety over the prospect of four more years of being invisible as the president sets national goals. For example, Mr. Trump regularly demeans government workers, many of whom are black. He’s still trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and cut financial aid to the unemployed.
Mr. Trump was slow to respond to the coronavirus overall. But he really failed to step up to the crisis in black America.
“The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 crisis is only having the effect of increasing people’s disdain and distrust of Trump and the entire administration,” Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC focused on black Democrats, told The New York Times.
After Mr. Arbery was stopped while jogging on a residential Georgia street and shot to death for no apparent reason, Mr. Trump said it was “very disturbing” but added that the gunmen might have reacted to “something that we didn’t see on the tape.” The refusal to condemn the attack outright led black activists to complain that even in the face of what looked like murder, Mr. Trump felt the need to nod to his “largely white coalition,” according to The Washington Post.
“When you have hate emanating from the Oval Office, why are we surprised?” said Karen Bass, a California congresswoman who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, about the shooting.
Black Americans have had enough. They have an explosive, personal investment in defeating Mr. Trump in 2020. More than 80 percent of them say Mr. Trump is a racist. For them, defeating him is the civil rights movement of 2020.
And it is not an empty threat.
If black voters returned to the polls at their 2012 levels, the Democratic presidential candidate “would win the Electoral College by 294-244,” according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
If Mr. Biden chooses a black woman as his running mate, as many expect him to do, it could further boost turnout. He is said to be considering Kamala Harris, Val Demings and Stacey Abrams. He has also promised to name a black woman to the Supreme Court. Given their role in his triumph in the Democratic primaries, black women are at a point of maximal leverage in demanding a seat at the table of power.
One 2006 study of voting patterns found that black Democratic candidates spurred a jump of two to three percentage points in turnout among blacks and whites. There is the risk of increasing the number of whites voting in opposition to the black candidate. But that risk comes with a big benefit if the history-making ticket sparks a boost in black turnout in swing states.
White Democrats actually were “a little more likely than black Democrats to think a black nominee would help the ticket’s chances,” according to the summary of a CBS News poll in early May. Most black voters say their priority for a vice president is simply that the candidate — black or white — increases Mr. Biden’s chance of winning. In late May, polls showed the top choice for Mr. Biden’s vice president among black and white Democrats was Senator Elizabeth Warren.
It’s likely that Mr. Trump is now hoping that suburban white voters will be so frightened by the protests against police violence and news footage of broken windows at Target stores that they will turn to him in sufficient numbers to nullify the black vote. Stoking racial divisions may work for his base, but not for voters in the middle. Polls show most independents have already decided they can’t support Mr. Trump. Now they have seen the tape of Mr. Floyd dying. Violent protests may make them anxious, but they have had their eyes opened to injustice.
These are dark days, but black voters’ profile and power have never been this high. They have the chance to lead the nation to recovery. Civil rights leaders, who pushed for the 1965 Voting Rights Act and had their blood spilled to register black voters, dreamed of this moment.
Juan Williams is a Fox News analyst and the author of “What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?” He writes a column for The Hill.
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