It’s axiomatic: African Americans are Democrats. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it ever shall be! Or so the thinking goes. The fact is that for most of our history in this country, a majority of African Americans aligned with the Republican Party — “the Party of Lincoln.” In addition to being “the Great Emancipator,” in 1864 Lincoln became the first president to invite an African American, Frederick Douglass, to the White House. Further, in 1901, Republican Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to invite an African American, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House. (Whites reacted so negatively that such an invitation was not repeated for nearly 30 years.) These types of gestures endeared Blacks to the “Grand Old Party.”
Until the mid-1930s, it seemed as though the GOP would always have a lock on African Americans’ political allegiance. However, that began to change during the presidency of Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. Blacks liked “the New Deal,” even though its benefits did not apply equally to us. Further, they perceived FDR as racially moderate when compared to other Democrats — especially in the South. (Still, civil rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph had to pressure Roosevelt to spur racial progress.) By 1936 only 28% of Blacks voted for the Republican presidential nominee; more than double this percentage had voted for President Herbert Hoover just four years earlier.
The trickle of party switching became a flood following President Lyndon Johnson’s support of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Thus, from 1929-2017, only nine Black Republicans have been elected to Congress — which is roughly 7% of all Blacks who have served during that timeframe. Today, Will Hurd of Texas is the only Black Republican in the House of Representatives. Of course, there is no guarantee that the status quo is permanent. Blacks do not have permanent political allies; we have permanent political interests.
As I have pointed out previously, there is a growing disenchantment among African Americans regarding the Democratic Party. Of course, that does not necessarily mean — and to this point it has not meant — that we will return to voting for Republicans in large percentages. Republicans even have difficulty attracting wealthier African Americans, despite the party’s embracing of tax policies that disproportionately benefit people who have a lot of money.
I tend to be right-of-center on social issues and left-of-center on economic issues. Still, like most Americans, I strongly reject ideologically rigid “boxes.” (For example, my position on abortion tends to upset my friends who identify as pro-choice and those who identify as pro-life.) In fact, I have frequently described myself as a “reluctant Democrat.” I’m a Democrat solely because the Republican Party is anathema to me. (The fact that only a handful of Republicans are willing to condemn President Trump’s recent racist tweets.) Most disturbing is the fact that white Republicans tend to argue that the Democratic Party has “fooled” African Americans into believing that the GOP tolerates (and even embraces) racism. That’s a nice way of saying that we’re too stupid to know what racism is — a notion which substantially harms their “brand.”
African Americans recognize that both of the two major parties have substantial flaws, so we tend to vote for the one that has a better track record on racial and economic issues during the past 50 years. The Democrats at least pay lip service to racial equality. For example, the party platform reads, in part: “Democrats will promote racial justice through fair, just, and equitable governing of all public-serving institutions and in the formation of public policy… We will push for a societal transformation to make it clear that Black lives matter and that there is no place for racism in our country.” It is inconceivable that such language will appear in the Republican Party platform in the foreseeable future.
Still, with the notable exception of Barack Obama (and, yes, Bill Clinton), we tend not to be extremely enthusiastic about Democratic candidates. In short, we tend to pull the “D” lever more out of hope (and disgust at the GOP) than we do out of joy. However, a growing percentage of African American Democrats are tiring of choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” This is also true among Americans generally, especially Millennials. Even within the national Democratic Party, there is a growing chasm between younger elected officials, especially the so-called “squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, IIlhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tliab. This phenomenon is also evident on the Republican side, with factions such as Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. In short, Americans’ political interests are beginning to splinter to the point that our politics is beginning to resemble a de facto proto-parliamentary system. This means that a relatively small group of lawmakers can wield exceptional power in the form of swing votes. The GOP could have a legitimate shot of garnering substantially more support among African Americans if it could get out of its own way. I’m not holding my breath.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.