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We Are Not Our Vote

Black Americans are more diverse than their ballots.

By Theodore Johnson


(Photo: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

For all the twists and turns that occur during presidential election seasons, one plot line is no mystery: At least 85 percent of black Americans will vote for the Democratic candidate.

That number has risen several points higher over the last few years. Not only was the prospect of electing and re-electing the first black president compelling enough to increase the percentage of black votes for the Democratic Party, but it also drove the black voter participation rate to its highest levels ever, surpassing whites for the first time in history.

In the age of Barack Obama, the black vote has consolidated into a most impressive monolith. For a politically diverse people, this is a most unfortunate development. The wide variety of political views held by African Americans is muted by the uniformity of the votes we cast on Election Day. Voting in such an overwhelmingly partisan fashion lends itself to superficial assessments of our politics. It encourages incurious politicians to acknowledge the plight of black America without actually doing anything about it. As such, America does not really know or understand the complicated politics of its black citizens. Because, though black voters vote as a monolith, black Americans are not.

Consider my family. I am the child of college-educated parents who were children of the civil rights era. My father is a registered Republican from a family whose party allegiance harkens back to the days of Reconstruction when it was African Americans’ party of choice. It is no accident that I am the third generation to carry the name Theodore Roosevelt Johnson. My mother is a registered Democrat who, as a matter of individual and collective agency, subscribes to the party’s progressive views on race and gender. And I am an Independent, perpetually the square peg in a nation of round, polarized holes.

The three of us disagree vehemently on some topics, such as public education and foreign policy. But the three of us are on one accord concerning issues like voting rights and the importance of black entrepreneurship. And the three of us voted for Obama.

With a Republican Party still unwilling or unable to make its case to black voters, partisan voting endures. The nation has mistaken this electoral solidarity for political sameness.

Though our politics are different, to the outside world, we are just some black folks who voted for the black guy — unremarkable in adherence to a party and our race. In one fell swoop, the richness of the black experience is blanched by the prevailing lazy narratives about African Americans’ politics. As long as this is the case, there is little hope of improving race relations, addressing disparities, or making the American Dream more accessible to those historically shut out.

Our arrival at this point is not happenstance. The reasons for black Americans’ present voting behavior is well-chronicled. When the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater came out against the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon implemented his Southern strategy rooted in racial resentment, the vast majority of black voters perceived the Democratic Party as the only viable option to preserve their hard-earned rights. This transformed African Americans into a single-issue electorate and depressed political differences for a time.

As our political expression transitioned from protest to electoral politics, the gains of the Great Society legislation began taking root. An educated and middle-class black America emerged and fostered more diversity within the group. Yet such a welcome development comes with costs. Black Americans now experience the greatest amount of intraracial income inequality of any racial or ethnic group. The chasm between African Americans who have and those who have not has created different lived experiences, which, in turn, produced different politics.

These different politics, however, did not change our voting choices. With a Republican Party still unwilling or unable to make its case to black voters, partisan voting endures. The nation has mistaken this electoral solidarity for political sameness.

But the veil of partisanship that has obscured our political expression is being lifted. The election of Obama inspired black Americans and announced the significant electoral influence we could wield. With this political clout came hope that conditions in black America would finally become a priority.

But they haven’t yet. Black unemployment is still nearly twice the rate of whites. More than one in four blacks remain mired in poverty. Most blacks still attend segregated schools and live in segregated neighborhoods. Structural racism continues to infect every aspect of our lives from health care to criminal justice.

It wasn’t long before segments of this empowered electorate found themselves frustrated with the president’s colorblind, “rising tide lifts all boats” approach to policy and angered by the racist undertones of an increasingly intransigent Republican Congress. There was a sense that faith in electoral politics was waning. After all, if a black president couldn’t address these disparities, what politician could? Certainly, black America’s expectations of Obama were high, perhaps even unrealistic. But his deft politics in winning the election gave us hope that he could overcome the challenges that would undoubtedly attend his historic presidency. When change did not materialize as anticipated, a slight despair set in that black citizens’ disparate American experience would never be a national priority.

Younger black Americans, especially, who do not harbor the same partisan loyalty of their parents and grandparents, became disenchanted. Their voter participation rate dropped by nearly 10 percent for Obama’s re-election. The number who identified as Independents increased. They enacted a politics of impatience that gave birth to campus protests, rejection of respectability politics, and inspired activist movements like Black Lives Matter.

Though African Americans have always been politically diverse, increased voting power, access to resources, and divergent experiences have created a more complex electorate and a platform for its symphony of voices. Given this evolution, I set out to explore the current state of the black electorate. I knew from my own household that behind Election Day choices exists an important story of African-American identity and politics. In the course of examining survey data on black voting behavior collected for my doctoral research, a rainbow emerged from the prism. Beneath the strong party heuristic, African-American politics varied based on an individual’s gender, age, income, religiosity, and family structure. When this statistical analysis is coupled with black Americans’ experiences communicated in our churches and schools, barbershops and salons, fraternal organizations, and family gatherings, a better understanding of African-American political behavior becomes possible.

I soon realized that my politics are informed as much by my education and my family’s views as they are by my experience as a suburban black kid who clumsily straddled the line between white society and black culture. I felt different and disconnected from the other black children in my school and church who lived on the other side of town. I bolstered my cultural bona fides by attending a historically black university and joining a historic black Greek-letter service organization just as my parents had done. But I also trafficked in the privilege my middle-class parents and token blackness afforded that allowed me to enter, operate comfortably, and thrive in predominantly white spaces, like the military, Harvard University, and the White House.

How in the world could my politics be the same as a black man raised in inner-city poverty? How could my worldview be the same as a black woman who’s been subjected to racialized misogyny and wages incommensurate with her ability? How could my Christian Southern upbringing that treasured respectability politics be identical to those of black Americans from other religions, from other regions, and from other rearing?

It can’t. Yet to the outside world, we are just some black people that voted for the black guy. And this is a most unfortunate development. The song that black folks have for America should not be auto-tuned to a single note. We are many things, but we are not our vote.

This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.