What Have Democrats Done for Black Voters? Quite A Lot, Actually…
By Markose Butler
This is part four in a series on different policy agendas the Democratic Party can embrace to re-engage with Black voters and show that they are working to concretely improve the lives of African Americans. The first entry was published in The Hill and can be found here, part 2 appeared in Newsweek and can be found here, the third entry was placed in The 74 and can be found here.
If you’ve kept up with my series of writings this past month, it’s easy to see a common theme emerge. February is Black History Month and over that time, I’ve touched on different areas in which the Democratic Party has let the African American community down by not embracing reforms that could truly unleash Black potential. This final installment will take a different tack: Instead of looking at what Democrats can improve on, this piece looks at the progress Democrats have made for the Black community.
It’s no secret that for decades the African American community has been a crucial component of the Democratic coalition. Ever since the New Deal, Democrats have made inroads with our community and after pushing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through in the 1960s, Democrats have largely locked up the Black vote. While it’s clear that there are still areas in which government policy can both enhance and get out of the way of Black success, the Democratic Party has made strides since then towards improving the lives of African Americans and empowering their vote.
This is perhaps most clear in the fact that the Democratic Party is the only major American party to have a solid stance against gun violence. Gun violence disproportionately affects African Americans, be it in the form of domestic incidents, gang violence, or street crime. Democrats have repeatedly and forcefully stood for reauthorization of the assault weapons ban, Democratic-controlled cities and states have the strictest gun safety regulations, and recent controversial gun jurisprudence undid many gun safety measures passed in the Democratic cities of D.C. and Chicago. More to the point, increasing gun safety measures is something supported not just by most Americans, but specifically overwhelming numbers of African Americans refuse to vote for politicians who don’t support gun safety. By consistently passing laws improving gun safety, over the objections of powerful lobbies and in the face of a conservative Supreme Court, the Democratic Party demonstrates that it does take Black voices into account. Finally, gun violence is a racial justice issue: African Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence and 10 times more likely to die of gun homicide as White Americans. From Trayvon Martin to Breonna Taylor to Renisha McBride and unfortunately too many others, gun violence has cut too many black lives short. By insisting on solutions to guns, the Democratic Party demonstrates that Black Lives do, in fact, Matter.
While listening to Black voters and pushing for policies overwhelmingly supported by all Americans with disproportionate impacts on African Americans is good, the Democratic Party has taken recent steps to elevate the power of Black voters. Primarily, they are the main party working to ensure voting rights in the John Lewis Voting Rights bill both at the state and federal levels. Ever since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2013, states dominated by Republicans, many of whom were bound by the pre-clearance rules under the VRA, took the occasion to pass new statutes restricting voting. In the post-2020 Big Lie era many of these states have taken the occasion to pass even more restrictions on voter access. In blue states like New York, Democrats passed state level versions of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Moreover, representation matters. For the first time in history, a major party has an African American as the Party Chair and a Vice Chair while simultaneously having a Black House Leader. The Party goes further to ensure our representation by breaking its historic Presidential Primary calendar and pushing South Carolina to the top. In doing so, the Democratic Party elevates the voices and votes of its African American base to the forefront. This new calendar embraces the fact that the Democratic Party is a diverse party that shouldn’t be held to highly unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire that neither have much diversity nor major urban areas. Moving states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Michigan to the front of the calendar, the new Democratic primary schedule ensures that no Democratic nominee for president gains momentum without a good look from urban and rural black voters who remain the Party’s most loyal constituency.
This emphasis on representation equity and voting rights dovetails with the Democratic Party’s sponsorship of methods to improve the economic wellbeing of Black families. On a number of issues from allocating funds from American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction acts to emphasizing equity in the roll out of cannabis legalization, Democrats have worked to make policy impacts equitable. It would be simple enough for these measures to pass in a needs/color blind manner and further entrench the advantages wealthier and whiter constituencies have. While it is true that a program that fights poverty would have disproportionate benefits for African Americans due to their disproportionate poverty, taking care to engage with Black communities and target funds for Black owned and run businesses will allow them to grow and amass wealth in ways that they were not allowed to for generations.
The Democratic Party, for all its shortcomings, remains the dominant party in the lives of the African American community. Not because, as some black conservatives offensively insist, we’re trapped on the “Democratic Plantation,” but because the Party at the very least takes our voices into consideration. While there has been some slippage in the past decade, we are still the most loyal constituency for the Democratic Party. Would I love it if the Democratic Party suddenly did everything I wanted it to do? Absolutely! But even in absence of that, the Democratic Party is still the only one of the two parties to even mention the needs of our community in official correspondence. As I reflect back on this Black History Month and the articles I’ve produced, I can’t help but feel that I am part of a political party that, while imperfect, still endeavors to improve the lives of people that look like me. I still remain a proud Black Democrat.