The Importance of the African American Vote

During this election cycle, one of the most pressing questions have been how the African American vote could sway the results of the presidency. Attempts at blocking early votingAfrican American women still expected to “show up” to vote, and why some African Americans are voting Republican show just how influential African Americans can be for the turnout of the presidential election.

Some have wondered why Black Republicans may vote for Donald Trump. “It’s completely legitimate to look at a Black Republican and say, ‘why are you doing this? How are you doing? I don’t understand how you can support this kind of policy.’ But you would have to ask those same questions of a white Republican,” says Corey D. Fields, sociologist and author of Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans, while in conversation with Tavis Smiley on October 19, 2016.

Corey D. Fields and Tavis Smiley discuss the impact of the African American vote this election season.
Corey D. Fields and Tavis Smiley discuss the impact of the African American vote this election season.

Many have tackled the question of whether a person can be black and Republican. Joshua Goodman for the New York Times writes that Fields “wants to understand how their sense of themselves as black people and their ideas about black people shape their politics and how their politics shape their identity and ideas. Fields … argue[s] that a majority of black Republicans are race-conscious, seeing their positions on social and economic issues in racial terms. If that seems surprising, it is because white Republicans prefer colorblind black conservatives.”

On the 125th Street subway platform in Harlem, April 2016. Credit Joseph Michael Lopez for The New York Times
On the 125th Street subway platform in Harlem, April 2016. Credit Joseph Michael Lopez for The New York Times

In his book, Fields illustrates this race-blind, color-conscious preference by white Republicans in relation to the Republican Party’s outreach efforts to black voters:

Fields-BlackElephantsRather than link Republican policies to the concrete concerns of black voters, outreach efforts have generally been grounded in vague, race-blind language. Betsy, another white Republican tasked with black outreach, chatted with me at a political event after Michael Steele, then making waves as a prominent African American Republican, spoke. Betsy praised Steele for being “articulate and well spoken” (words often recognized as a racially back-handed compliment) and was enthusiastic about him, though she was quick to note that she would like him whether he “was black, white, red, or orange.” She went on to say that the biggest barrier to getting more blacks involved in the Republican Party was education—stressing that, to her mind, when other groups like Jewish, Italian, and Polish immigrants had been underprivileged, education offered a “way out.” Even when these people were uneducated, Betsy said, they made sure that their children were educated.

I asked how education would increase black people’s Republicanism. She explained that once black people were educated, they would realize the affinity between their beliefs and the Republican Party. There was a palpable shift in the tone of our conversation, and Betsy became very serious, shaking her head and hitting the table to emphasize her points. She said that education would lead to more success and less “dependence on the government.” She paused. “Don’t you agree?” I tentatively responded that it was hard to argue against education. With her triumphant look, the tension in the conversation dissipated. Smiling, Betsy assured me that she was not going to give up on black voters just because it was hard to win them over.

What does this mean for the current presidential election? Fields writes that “a major shift in black support for the Republican Party this fall seems very unlikely. Based on my findings, the GOP has to reconsider how it incorporates black Republicans into the party if it has any real interest in appealing to black voters. It is not enough to incorporate blackness on terms that are comfortable to white leaders.”

How do you think the African American vote will influence today’s election? Share your comments below. #GetOutandVote #Election2016