The African-American community is comprised of 34 million people, and makes up approximately 12.8 percent of the American population (Barker, Jones, Tate 1999: 3). As such, it is the largest minority group in the United States. Yet, politically, the black community has never been able to sufficiently capitalize on that status in order to receive the full benefits of life in America. Today, African-Americans, hold less than 2 percent of the total number of elected positions in this country (Tate, 1994: 3) and the number of members within the community that actually partake in voting continues to drop. In spite of these statistics, as of 1984, a telephone survey found that 70 percent of Black Americans polled “strongly felt that the Black vote could make a difference in who gets elected at both the local and national levels, including… president” (Tate, 1994: 6). The black population still believes that voter participation can effect change in the government, and 75 percent believe that whatever happens to the group affects them personally, and so it is necessary to have a government that is sympathetic to the state of African-Americans in the United States.
As a result of this perceived common interest, one could say that the American black community constitutes an interest group of sorts, – a group of people that share the same interests and are working toward common goals – at least to a certain extent. At the very least, they have the potential to be an interest group, because although the majority of blacks feel that their future is tied to that of the entire race, there is a growing divide between blacks of different social classes, as well as a lack of organization, which is a key factor to initiating change. The black community relies on the strength of their vote, but in order to capitalize on voting strength, and turn it into political power:
A group must be able to maximize voter registration and voter turnout, develop institutional structures for recruiting supportive candidates for public office and mobilize support for such candidates. Once… elected, the group must develop a system to hold the candidates responsible to the group. (Barker, Jones, Tate 1999: 73)
In effect, they must capitalize on their ability to come together as an interest group and to create some form of accountability for whoever they support politically. Until recently, the black community has not been able to do so often or consistently, because of their minority status (due to lack of size they must rely on strategic voting and the black community hasn’t always been ideally located to capitalize on that), and intense party loyalties.
The Black Vote Historically
Ever since Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, African-Americans had been Republican. The GOP was the party of Lincoln, the party that had given them the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The Republican Party supported blacks, whereas the Democrat Party was the party of the South, and the Southern, White plantation owner. To the black community, the Republican Party represented “the high-minded, idealistic, God-fearing people,” whereas Democrats “dabbled in influence-peddling and vice” (Weiss 1983: 3). All blacks knew where to lay their loyalties – with the party that had given them their freedom – not with the Democrats, who represented slavery and servitude, and coming into the 20th century, Jim Crow and segregation. And so, black Americans followed the Republican Party from emancipation to the 20th century, where it seems they got lost in the transition, because upon entrance to the new century government sanctioned segregation and discrimination seemed to increasingly become the norm.. By the 1920’s, the Republican Party had alienated the black community by their “interest in cultivating lily-white Republicanism in the South than in strengthening the party’s traditional ties to blacks.” (Weiss 1984: 5).
Still, the black community remained with the Republican Party, because to stay seemed the lesser of two evils. Politically, they weren’t strong enough a force to gain political attention for themselves on a national level, because the majority of blacks still could not vote (Weiss 1984: 39), and as Robert R. Church said “the Republican Party offers us little. THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFERS US NOTHING” (Weiss 1984: 12). So although disenchanted, blacks stayed with the Republican Party on a passive basis, because they felt they had nowhere else to go. By 1932 that would begin to change as the Republican Party left them struggling economically with no way out.
The 1928 Hoover presidency had been devastating to blacks, as he demonstrated no care or concern for them, in addition to his inability to adequately deal with the economic burden of the Depression. Although ultimately blacks began to shift parties due to economic concerns, his policy to displace African-Americans from their jobs and workplaces “to reduce unemployment among whites” was unacceptable, as blacks suffered disproportionately from the strains of economic crisis, especially in places like Baltimore where blacks made up only 17 percent of the population, but constituted 31.5 percent of the unemployed. By his terms end, blacks were suffering, but still did not want to leave the “party of Lincoln” behind, because “no matter how far short of black expectations Hoover had fallen, his was the party responsible for the [13th, 14th and 15th] Amendments, and the Democrats were the party of disfranchisement.” (Weiss 1984: 18). So although blacks began to shift democratic, in 1932 they had the lowest number of defectors to the Democratic party than any other Republican group, with the Republicans retaining the large majority of the black vote in the major black districts, with the exception of New York (Weiss 1984: 29-30).
Throughout this time, black newspapers such as the Savannah Journal, and the Philadelphia Tribune were advocating a split in the black vote, a movement away from the Republican party, encouraging blacks to divide their vote arguing that:
So long as blacks were blindly loyal to the Republican Party, it was no wonder that neither Republicans nor Democrats paid them any special heed. The only hope for blacks politically was to become ‘an uncertain factor to be sought and wooed.’… neither party could any longer take them for granted, [by forcing both parties] to bid for black support their votes would begin to count and their political prestige would start to rise.” (Weiss 1984: 27)
The differences between the GOP and the Democrats had become so insignificant as be “the difference between tweedledee and tweedledum” (Weiss 1984: 27), that blacks would have a better chance at gaining recognition and success by changing sides, because “nothing could be worse than Hoover” (Weiss 1984: 27). Both prominent black leaders such as James Weldon Johnson and Walter White supported and encouraged a move, and Robert Vann’s statement “I see millions of Negroes turning the pictures of Abraham Lincoln to the wall” (Weiss 1984: 28) symbolized the abandonment of the GOP, but the majority of African-Americans chose to wait. Black Republicans were going to wait to judge Roosevelt and the Democratic Party on the success of his “New Deal” economics policy. Only after seeing if it would work for them, would they change their vote.
The Voting Shift
In 1936, the black community began its defection to the Democratic Party en masse. Roosevelt’s New Deal had worked, and was working for them. Blacks were delegated to a part of the national population, because their problem was seen to be one primarily of economics, and their advancement was perceived to be closely linked to white America, so success was to be achieved through broad-based general economic and social reform (Weiss 1984: 37). Although it did not target them specifically because blacks were not powerful enough a constituency to warrant personal attention, blacks were benefiting from the New Deal, and they needed all the help they could get. Said one newspaper, “if any group needs the New Deal… it is black Americans” (Weiss 1984: 45). And so, by the time election came around, many black republicans had defected, not to the Democratic party per say, but rather to Roosevelt and his New Deal economics.
Race and civil rights issues were never a primary concern of the Roosevelt administration, but there was communication between the White House and black leaders such as Walter White. The New Deal era, “transformed the methods of the two oldest nation organizations for racial advancement , the national Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League “ (Weiss 1984: 62).
In the past, rallying blacks to political causes had been difficult, because politics had little relevance to most black people, because neither party ever focussed on racial issues, but with the advent of the New Deal, “the federal government daily made decisions that directly affected the well-being of individual black Americans” (Weiss 1984: 63). This became the basis for getting the black community involved politically, and for organizing them as a group to put pressure on the government. Although the NAACP had been lobbying and performing the part of an interest group for a quarter-century, now it was able to actually get black Americans involved and have a chance at procuring rights for the black people.
By publicizing the commitments it was able to obtain, the Association sought to educate black voters to hold candidates accountable when they went to the polls…[they] also urged the importance of voter registration and encouraged blacks to qualify to exercise their franchise, even in the Deep South. As the NAACP’s membership secretary [said] ‘We…began to try to build the image of the Negro as a voting personality, as a person ho would influence his government by his vote. (Weiss 1984: 64)
This tactic proved effective, leading to the defeat of certain senators in 1930 after campaigning by the NAACP, as well as a greater awareness among blacks of their potential political power. And in its push for organization and political awareness, the NAACP was not alone. The National Urban League also took part in the organization of the black community toward making them a more politically minded, organized interest group, but it focussed more on the economic aspects, pushing for a response to its entreaties through loud, public protest. With the voting shift, came the awareness of the potential power that blacks held among them, together as a group. But, it was still never fully capitalized upon.
Throughout the Roosevelt administration, his support of the African-American community and their demands was token; the majority of their accomplishments were symbolic, because not even Roosevelt would rock the boat. Roosevelt was more concerned with passing legislation to overcome the Great Depression, than in ensuring equality for all, but that did not stop blacks from voting for him. In every subsequent presidential race after 1932, blacks voted for Roosevelt; they were so used to having nothing, that when they got a little something they kept it. This support did not mean though that they left their lobbying and demands behind, they were still there, but they were secondary; first to the economic crisis, and then to the war. But for all their lobbying and demands, they still accomplished little, because Roosevelt in order to push through his own agenda, he needed the support of the South, and they would not support him, if he openly supported blacks. In his four terms as president, Roosevelt signed less than 1/3 of the 150 pieces of Civil Rights legislation that crossed his desk.
The shift to the Democratic Party was never meant to be permanent, which is why many blacks referred to themselves as “Roosevelt Republicans;” it was a change born of economic necessity. Although his presidency had in many ways allowed blacks to grow politically, they were still oppressed, and so with both parties still wavering on the race issue, neither taking a stand, the black vote wavered too. From 1948 until 1964 the black vote was split between the Republican and the Democratic parties, although it leaned Democratic. After 1964 and the advent of Civil Rights, the black vote became decidedly Democratic.
In 1964, the roles were reversed between the two main parties. The Democrats came to be seen as being pro-black, and the Republicans anti-black, and this had to do with several factors. One important factor was the Great Northern Migration which began with the Depression, and ended after World War II. During this period many Blacks moved northward, and so became concentrated in the big cities such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, which meant that “for a Democratic presidential nominee to win Illinois…he had to win big in Chicago, which meant he had to do very well among black voters in the city” (Carmines and Stinson, 1989: 33). The second, more determinative factor lies in the fact that whereas before, race had been a non-partisan issue, Senator Barry Goldwater (one of six senators who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) turned it into a highly partisan issue, “with Democrats squarely occupying the pro-civil rights side, and Republicans in the anti-civil rights camp” (Tate 1994: 54). The Democratic Party was more racially liberal, and so garnered the support of black America.
The Black Democrat
The black voter changed substantially after the 1964 elections. He has become overwhelmingly democratic, and has given more than three-quarters of his vote to the Democratic party ever since, but that is not enough:
Since 1968 blacks have given no less that 82 percent of their vote to the candidate thought to be more supportive of their interests [the Democratic candidate], but except for 1976, 1992 and 1996, its candidate has been soundly beaten in every election (Barker, Jones and Tate 1999: 23)
because the “American” voter has became more conservative. After 1964, the electorate turned away from issues of civil rights and race, and returned to economic concerns. During the Civil Rights era, the black community made many steps toward equality with legislation brought about through lobbying and protest and the black vote was significant, because the government was appealing directly to race. But that appeal was short-lived because after legislation was passed the American electorate felt that it was over; blacks now had equality. And so, they moved away from it.
African-Americans as a group, have remained steadfastly loyal to the Democratic party, especially in large cities and the South, unfortunately, that has not been enough, because the Democrats who tend to appeal to the black population rarely do well among more conservative white America. Due to this, blacks have become discourage, the voter turnout has dropped significantly, and continues to do so although the vote is still Democratic.
One could argue that blacks have returned to choosing between the lesser of two evils, because Jesse Jackson’s two presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, increased black voter turnout for the Democratic Party, and, as Tate points out, could be responsible for the return of many blacks’ support for the following election years.
Jackson may have acted as a means to make anew “the covenant” between the Democratic Party and black America like he intended, but blacks still were not satisfied with their party in 1988, 65 percent saying that they would support an independent bid by Jackson (Tate 1994: 66). The Jackson bid for president opened new alternatives for blacks and allowed them to realize that they had more choices, but as far as black leadership went, they didn’t have anywhere to go with it, because black leaders would not move to or support an independent or third party for fear of becoming even more marginalized within the political sphere (Tate 1994:71). So black Democrats are left to work within the party to achieve political power and clout.
The Great Divide
Black voters and lobbyists did not have the wealth needed to keep governmental attention, but they had the numbers, yet it still was not enough, because like the pre Roosevelt Republican party, the Democrats had learned to count on black votes. The black vote has become loyal to the Democratic Party because of the many accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement (quite a number of which were symbolic achievements only), yet it has been marginalized. They no longer felt the need to appeal to blacks because they had done what needed to be done, – accomplished social equality, put a ban on discrimination and racism – party loyalty was only a logical conclusion.
In addition, the African American community has become divided within itself. The majority of African-Americans remains Democratic, but there is a growing divide within the community. As Katherine Tate points out in From Protest to Politics the black community does not actually divide conservatism or liberalism along the boundaries of class or age or education, but rather along the boundaries of race-consciousness and race identification – the idea of a common fate (Tate 1994: 24-25, 45-49). A growing number of blacks are again focussing their concerns not on civil rights issues, but issues of economics, the problems of poverty and unemployment, education and crime, although a large minority still feel that adequate progress in race relations has not been achieved (Tate 1994: 46). But they are leaving civil rights alone, and focussing more on immediate issues at hand, that they have disassociated from race. This growing number of blacks that do not identify with race are more conservative, and less likely to vote liberal, and Tate also notes that race identification is becoming a strong rival of party and ideological identifications as a source of black policy positions (Tate 1994: 46).
With a divide such as this within the African-American community, it is difficult for blacks to capitalize on their voting potential. On the one hand, they have all the loyal followers of the Democratic Party that gave them their rights, and on the other there is a growing number of people that do not identify with being black as being affected in the same way by policy as all other blacks, and so tend to be more conservative
The problems that the Black American faces today with government, almost mirror exactly the problems he faced in the 1920’s. Today, the vote is again taken for granted due to years of blind, unfailing party loyalty, and still he is being ignored. Race is again being delegated to the peripheral, while more serious economic problems again rise to the fore; blacks, along with other minorities, still bear the brunt of this country’s economic failings. Both parties are again moving toward the center; Democrats are becoming more conservative, meaning that the radicalism that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Movement no longer exists. Social justice and equality are again secondary in the face of economic problems.
Blacks must look to a common ground upon which to base their vote. They could divide up and align themselves along class lines or education, or some other factor, but they would be ineffective, I feel, as the United States has yet to provide total equality for any but the majority. Alliances along those lines would again leave blacks marginalized, and more than that, divided among themselves.
The African-American community must do today what it failed to do in the 1930’s. It must follow the seventy-year-old advice of those such as A. Philip Randolph and Oscar DePriest as well as the advice of more recent analysts such as Katherine Tate and Ronald W. Walters. They prompt voting without regard as to what party one is voting for, but rather with concern as to what the candidate himself represents. African-Americans must come together and use their vote as a bargaining tool. They demonstrated its worth in the 1976 presidential election of Jimmy Cater, and most recently in the 1996 election of President Clinton. By separating themselves from any permanent affiliation with any party, African-Americans will force those parties to appeal to them as a group for their vote, and upon receiving it, that party will be more certain to produce results in policy and legislation favourable to the Black community.
Tate, Katherine. From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Electorate. First Harvard University Press: United States of America. c1994.
Walters, Ronald W. Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach. State University of New York Press: United States of America. c1988.
Weiss, Nancy J. Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. c1983.