Black voters are expected to play a crucial role in the upcoming 2020 election cycle. But a new survey of more than 30,000 black Americans finds that a large number don’t believe politicians care about them or their needs — and that while political candidates certainly spend time talking at black voters, they aren’t putting the same effort into talking to them.
The results come from the Black Census Project survey, which aims to map out what black life in America looks like by highlighting the nuances and distinctions among black Americans. Unlike other surveys of black voters, the Black Census Project focuses on black communities that are often left out of mainstream polling, including younger people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people who are currently or formerly incarcerated.
The first set of survey results, released Tuesday, reveal that black Americans remain very politically engaged and are deeply concerned about both economic issues like low wages, lack of affordable health care, and rising college costs, as well as criminal justice issues like police accountability, gun violence, and reenfranchising people with felony convictions.
But even with their high levels of political participation, a majority of black respondents said they don’t feel like politicians and political parties care about them. And those involved in putting the Black Census Project together say that feeling is reinforced by the fact that candidates’ efforts to engage black communities often focus more on symbolic gestures than meaningful interactions.
“The Black Census shows that the Black electorate want policies that improve our lives, not pandering photo ops at Black institutions,” Alicia Garza, a principal of the Black Futures Lab, an advocacy organization that led the survey effort, said in a statement.
Black communities are heavily engaged in politics, but they feel like politicians aren’t doing enough to reach them
The Black Census Project’s survey of more than 30,000 black respondents was conducted through a mix of online surveys and in-person canvassing efforts and included responses from nearly every state.
The survey intentionally oversampled younger black respondents, Garza explained, and paid close attention to black LGBTQ-identified individuals and black immigrants to see if those groups had responses that differed from the older black population typically captured in polling.
As a result, the survey highlights experiences that are at times left out of mainstream discussions of black voters and black communities in general. “The survey was really focused on capturing the breadth and complexity of what black communities are in this country,” Garza, who is also known for her role as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, told me.
That complexity is certainly reflected in the survey’s findings — some of which challenge long-held assumptions about black voters.
Respondents report higher levels of political engagement than the black population as a whole; nearly 86 percent were registered to vote in 2018 and 74 percent said that they voted in the 2016 election. One-third of respondents also said they were civically engaged beyond voting, via activities like working on voter registration drives, giving people rides to the polls, and donating to political candidates.
Sixty percent of respondents identified as Democrats, while just 2 percent identified as Republicans (the rest identified either with other parties or as independents). That’s in line with the conventional wisdom that black people tend to vote Democratic.
But then there’s this: Nearly a fifth of respondents said they view the Democratic Party unfavorably, and 52 percent of respondents — more than 16,000 people — said that “politicians do not care about Black people or their interests”; another 35 percent said that politicians care about black people “a little.”
According to the groups involved in the survey, these results strongly suggest that Democratic candidates shouldn’t expect black voters to be motivated to turn out in above-average numbers without putting in the work to engage black communities.
”For far too long, Black voters in this country have been marginalized, misrepresented, and taken for granted in electoral politics,” Sabeel Rahman, the president of Demos, another organization that partnered in the project, said in a statement.
Black Census respondents are especially concerned about economic issues and the justice system — and they have specific solutions for these problems
In addition to asking respondents about their opinions on political parties and their political engagement, the survey aims to better explain black life in America: the issues that different black communities face, the policy issues they are most concerned about, and the solutions they think would best solve those problems.
Overwhelmingly, respondents listed low wages as their top concern, with 85 percent saying that it was a “major problem.” The report notes that this aligns with the lived experiences of the respondents: A third of those surveyed reported cutting back on food to save money, while close to half (48 percent) reported living in a household that did not have enough money to pay a monthly bill at least once in the past year.
Respondents also highlighted a lack of affordable health care and housing as well as the rising costs of college as major economic concerns for them and their families.
But they also expressed support for certain policy solutions outlined in the survey — an overwhelming 90 percent said the government should “improve access to affordable health care” by directly providing it, 85 percent of respondents supported increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and 87 percent expressed a belief in a “right to housing.” The survey also found that 76 percent favored increasing taxes on people making $250,000 or more a year.
Black Census respondents had plenty to say about the justice system, too: 87 percent said that police killings of black people were a problem. A slightly lower number, 84 percent, said it was a problem that police were not held accountable for misconduct; 83 percent said they were concerned by officers’ use of excessive force.
Much like with economic concerns, these concerns about policing and the larger justice system are deeply rooted in lived experience: 55 percent of respondents said they’d had a “negative interaction with the police”; 28 percent of respondents said they’d had one in the past six months.
Younger respondents were more likely to say they had a negative interaction recently (38 percent), but a third of respondents overall said that their first negative interaction with police came before their 18th birthday.
Respondents also expressed high support for different solutions outlined in this section of the survey, with 73 percent of respondents supporting the idea that policing could be improved by holding officers accountable for misconduct; 60 percent also supported the use of police body cameras, saying that footage from these cameras could be used to hold officers accountable.
“While most Black Census respondents want to address matters of crime and safety in their community, such as the violence from gun use,” the report notes, “respondents also seek policing that is respectful of the community.”
Black communities have a fairly consistent set of concerns. Politicians have repeatedly failed to address them.
Many of the concerns raised in the Black Census Project survey are not new, and align with other recent surveys showing that black voters are particularly concerned about jobs, the economy, and police accountability.
But Garza, the leader of the Black Futures Lab, said that even with this knowledge at their disposal, politicians and political parties have often failed to center the issues important to black voters in their campaigns, instead defaulting to highly publicized black outreach displays and get-out-the-vote efforts that are more about style than substance.
And when politicians do speak to black voters about issues, they often fail to specifically discuss the ways that issues affecting all voters, like the economy and a lack of access to health care, disproportionately and uniquely impact black communities.
The result is that black voters feel like their consistent support for Democrats is being taken for granted, creating a cycle in which black voters turn out for elections but fail to see much return on their investment. And in 2020, unless politicians change tactics, black political organizations warn that some black voters may not see a point in going to the polls at all.
“Black voters are an incredibly powerful force, and yet we’re not being engaged as if we’re an incredibly powerful force,” Garza says. “With so much at stake in the country, we don’t have time for fried chicken photo ops.”