How the black vote became a political monolith

Theodore R Johnson's rationale for voting for the first time in 2008 was much like his father’s two decades earlier  — he was not going to stand idly by if there was a chance to put a black man in those rooms
How the black vote became a political monolith

Scenes of elation at the Democrat's after-party in Seattle, Washington State, as results are announced and it becomes clear Barak Obama will become the next president of the United States. Picture: iStock

In the autumn of 2008, just a few weeks after my 33rd birthday, I cast a ballot for the first time. 

Up to that point, serving in the military seemed like more than sufficient civic engagement and provided a ready excuse for voluntarily opting out of several elections. By the time Barack Obama won the Democratic primary, I was an officer who’d spent more than a decade in the navy and not a second in a voting booth.

This apathy does not run in the blood. My parents are products of the civil rights era and the Jim Crow South and as such religiously exercised their hard-won right to vote. 

In my formative years, the basic disposition of the house politics pressed together progressive demands for racial equality with the black conservatism of marathon church services that stretched deep into Southern Sunday afternoons. 

We differed in degree on any number of issues, but elections were where our politics really diverged. Like much of black America, my mother is a lifelong Democrat, staying true even as the party vacillated in and out of her good graces. 

My father is a somewhat perfunctory Republican, an heirloom affiliation inherited from black Americans’ early-20th-century preference for the party of Lincoln and consecrated in the familial name carried by my grandfather, father, and me: Theodore Roosevelt Johnson.

Barack and Michelle Obama. Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
Barack and Michelle Obama. Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire

But in November 2008, all three of us checked the box for Obama, our votes helping deliver North Carolina to a Democratic presidential nominee for only the second time in 40 years. 

My father had crossed party lines once before, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president. Jackson’s business-size Afro, jet black mustache, and Carolina preacher’s staccato cadence transformed the typically all-white affair of presidential contests. 

“If a black man had the opportunity to sit in the Oval Office,” my father told me years later, “I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.” 

His rationale for supporting Jackson hinged on a basic proposition, informed by generations of black experience in America: The thousands of lesser decisions made in rooms of power can matter far more for racial equality than campaign promises and platforms. 

US Senator Kamala Harris crisply captured this sentiment while campaigning last year, declaring a simple truth: “It matters who’s in those rooms.” 

My rationale for voting for the first time was much like my father’s two decades earlier. I was not going to stand idly by if there was a chance to put a Black man in those rooms.

Though surveys routinely show that black Americans are scattered across the ideological spectrum, near-unanimity is undeniably a persistent feature of Black voting behavior 

From 1964 to 2008, according to a report by the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies, an average of 88 percent of black votes went to the Democratic Party’s presidential nominees, a number that increased to 93 percent in the last three presidential elections.

The existence of the black electoral monolith is evidence of a critical defect not in black America, but in the American practice of democracy. That defect in the space our two-party system makes for racial intolerance and the appetite our electoral politics has for the exploitation of racial polarisation — to which the electoral solidarity of black voters is an immune response.

Black America's introduction to the democratic republic came via the cold calculus of the US Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise. A full accounting of the enslaved black population would have empowered the states championing enslavement by giving such states more representatives in Congress and more votes in the Electoral College; a total exclusion would have expunged their personhood from the sacred text. Democracy to enslaved black Americans thus initially presented as little more than a negotiation on how their rights and humanity could be bartered away.

When black men were first enfranchised after the end of the Civil War, they faced a partisan politics reduced to one stark choice: Side with those who would extend more rights of citizenship to black people or with those who would deny them. Naturally, they largely supported racially progressive Republicans who advocated for black suffrage and representation.

The ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments codified freedmen’s participation in the electoral process at a time when upward of 90% of black Americans lived in the Southern states, constituting actual or near majorities in more than a few. 

This led to more than 300 black state and federal legislators in the South holding office in 1872, a level not seen again for more than 100 years. These elected officials were overwhelmingly Republicans swept into office by the unity of black voters, who assembled to demand equality and liberty that hinged on keeping white segregationists from power.

Competition for voters

This was the black monolith’s forceful debut. In a thriving democracy, one aligned to the nation’s professed values, a competition for these new voters would have ensued. The monolith would have dissipated as individual black voters sought out their ideological compatriots instead of being compelled to band against segregation and racial violence.

Instead, a campaign of white nationalist terrorism swept across the South, targeting black Republican legislators and voters. In Georgia, the 1868 State Legislature voted to expel its black members, all of whom were Republican. They were eventually reseated, but not before white racist vigilantes in the town of Camilla opened fire on black marchers attending a Republican rally, killing, by some accounts, nearly a dozen and wounding dozens more. 

That same year in South Carolina, white vigilantes killed a number of black legislators. One of them, Benjamin F Randolph, was shot in broad daylight at a train station. No one was ever tried for the crime, let alone convicted of it. In the Colfax Massacre of 1873, dozens of black Republicans and state militiamen were killed during an attempt to overturn election results in Louisiana.

Federal forces kept some of this racial terror in check, but not all of it. And white Republican leaders occasionally bowed to the violence out of political expedience. 

In the 1876 presidential election, 19 electoral votes in three Southern states were disputed and accompanied by voter intimidation and widespread voter fraud. In South Carolina, according to the University of Virginia historian Michael F Holt’s book By One Vote, voter turnout was an absurd 101%.

The moderate Republican Rutherford B Hayes lost the popular vote that year, but appeared to have an edge in obtaining the disputed electors, and Republican Party leaders struck a deal with Democrats that would make him president in exchange for a promise that federal troops would not intervene in Southern politics. Once in office, Hayes followed through on his pledge. 

The Compromise of 1877, as it is now known, effectively traded black people’s rights for the keys to the White House. It brought Reconstruction to an end, paving the way for the Jim Crow era.

In the first century of American politics, the word “compromise” was often a euphemism for prying natural and constitutional rights from black Americans’ grip. 

Separatist politics

The lack of faith in American democracy’s ability to do what was right undergirded black conservatism, producing economic philosophies like Booker T Washington’s bootstrapping self-determination; social efforts toward civic acceptance like the respectability politics of the black church; and separatist politics like the early iterations of black nationalism. 

A recognition that achieving racial equality required a strong government fuelled black progressivism, which demanded anti-lynching federal legislation; eradication of the poll tax and other barriers to voting; and expansion of quality public education. Elections might have brought these strains of black politics together, out of necessity, but did not erase the differences between them.

In the years that followed, the twin phenomena of the Great Migration and the Great Depression carried millions of Black Americans out of the South to new locales in search of physical and economic security. 

The Howard University political scientist Keneshia Grant has documented in her book, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party, how this influx of black Americans led Northern white leaders and elected officials of both parties to devise campaign strategies and policy positions targeting Black voters.

In the 1930s through the 1950s, that electoral solidarity was hardly a given. Democrats had a progressive economic agenda that appealed to black voters, but the party was still home to the Southern conservatives ruthlessly enforcing Jim Crow laws. 

The Republican Party could have mounted a concerted national effort to keep black voters by refusing to be outflanked on civil rights policies, but its coalition of pro-business interests were less enthusiastic about the regulatory compliance burden associated with civil rights measures on employment, wages, public accommodations and housing.

Instead, Democratic national leadership made the first bold move. A year before the 1948 presidential election, noting the success of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal electoral coalition, a campaign-strategy memo drafted by Clark Clifford and James Rowe, advisers to President Truman, argued that “the Northern Negro voter today holds the balance of power in presidential elections for the simple arithmetical reason that the Negroes not only vote in a bloc but are geographically concentrated in pivotal, large and closely contested electoral states such as New York Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan”. 

Truman’s decision to sign executive orders desegregating the military and the federal workforce was an electoral broadside constructed, in part, to help win over the support of northern black voters.

Margin of victory

It worked. Truman won 77% of black voters, and with them, the Great Migration destination states of Illinois and Ohio by just a combined 40,000 votes — and these states’ electoral votes provided the margin of victory.

The election outcome was proof of the new electoral advantage black solidarity offered a party willing to deliver racially progressive policies. And the decision of many Southern Democrats, upset with the party’s formal embrace of civil rights at that year’s Democratic National Convention, to mount a third-party presidential bid that year hinted that an opposing bloc of increasingly disgruntled white segregationists was shopping for a new home.

The Democrats’ and Republicans’ national platforms in this period often addressed civil rights in nearly equal measure, and sometimes Republicans were more progressive on the question. 

Richard Nixon held positions on civil rights similar to John F Kennedy’s during the 1960 presidential campaign, and won nearly a third of the black vote that year (though in the South, where the majority of the black population still lived, black voters were effectively barred from the polls).

It was the last time a Republican would win more than 15% of the black vote in a presidential election. When Senator Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican, became the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and voiced his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, black voters bunched themselves into the Democratic Party for good, supporting Lyndon Johnson at a rate comparable with Barack Obama’s nearly a half-century later.

Black turnout soared

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, meanwhile, greatly expanded the Black electorate — voter-registration rates among nonwhites in Mississippi, for instance, leaped to 59.8% in 1967 from 6.7%. Black turnout soared. And George Wallace’s third-party candidacy for president in 1968, running on a segregation platform and winning five states in the process, was the last gasp for segregationists operating outside the two-party system.

Within a decade, white Southern Democrats were responding favorably to the appeals of the Republican Party. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” refrain and Ronald Reagan’s renewed call for “states’ rights” were racialized, implicitly communicating opposition to progressive policies like busing and tapping into anxieties about a rapidly integrating society. 

With explicitly racist appeals now socially taboo, symbolic and ostensibly colorblind gestures made the transition easier by reframing the race question as one about free-market principles, personal responsibility, and government nonintervention. 

American voters, black and white alike, got the message

The Republican Party's rightward move on race was a tremendous electoral success, winning the White House in five out of six elections from 1968 to 1992 and the Senate in consecutive elections for the first time since the onset of the Great Depression. 

At the same time, the Democratic Party deepened its relationship with Black voters. More Black members arrived in Congress, won mayoral races, and set the stage for the black political identity to become synonymous with support for Democrats.

The result was that racial polarisation was now less a product of partisan philosophies about the personhood or citizenship of black Americans and more a fact of partisan identity — and a political instrument to hold and wield power. 

This was a subtle but profound shift, and a dangerous one. Partisan energy accordingly is hardly ever expended in an earnest competition for Black voters but rather in determining whether they can vote, tilting the axis of the issue away from the exercise of the franchise to access to it.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris. Picture: AP Photo/Morry Gash
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris. Picture: AP Photo/Morry Gash

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, more than eight in 10 black Americans identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning, and a third of the party’s members of Congress are people of color. Only half of white Americans identify with Republicans, but they account for eight in 10 members of the party.

And 95% of congressional Republicans are white; only two are black, and one of them, Will Hurd of Texas, is retiring this November.

In “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop,” the political scientist Lee Drutman notes that the modern American two-party system so consecrates competition that party leaders are more incentivized to disparage the other side as extreme and un-American than to compromise. 

The line between partisanship and racial conflict has thinned. And in How Democracies Die, the Harvard University government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that when elected officials use the instruments of government to divide and polarize the public, destabilize institutions and demonize opponents, they can send a democracy into a death spiral.

Should black Americans ever secure the freedom to vote according to their politics instead of against those who believe civil rights protections are excessive and burdensome, it will signal that our country has rediscovered the resolve required to overcome the historical effects of racism on our society today. 

For its democracy to reach its final form, the answer cannot be that one party has tried to answer the call — it must be that each party does so, and without penalty.

Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice and the author of When the Stars Begin to Fall, to be published by Grove Atlantic in the spring. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

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