Black Voters Taken for Granted: A Discussion in Falls Church, Virginia

A December vote in Alabama proved the might of the black voting bloc nationwide. The black community, specifically black women, helped elect Democrat Doug Jones over the controversial alternative of Roy Moore to fill the US Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. After Jones’s victory, black activists were quick to ask Americans to imagine a world in which the black voting bloc was fully appreciated.

Alabama’s winter election is one of many elections across the country in which black women made the difference. Activist Brittany Packnett tweeted, “Can you imagine what would be possible if the DNC and political funders actually turned over resources and support to Black organizers, Black politicos, and Black woman leaders? …We can vote…We can also lead, change, and transform nations. …Invest in black people.”

Just last week, the Virginia Leadership Institute, a nonpartisan organization founded to help increase the number of elected and appointed black leaders, hosted an event at the Thomas Jefferson Library in Falls Church, Virginia, titled “The Black Vote: Is it taken for granted?” Four panelists and a moderator offered a bipartisan discussion as to what the political parties have done and not done for black Americans, and how those citizens can best use the political system to advance in the United States.

The panel was composed of Dr. Toni Michelle Travis, George Mason University professor of political science; EJ Scott, president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia; DJ Jordan, vice chair of the Prince William County Republican Committee; and Catherine Read, board member of Equality Virginia and its PAC, chair of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s PAC, and Virginia’s List.

Elaine Jones offered her perspective that the black vote isn’t taken for granted, but that in Virginia, most black residents are not active voters. The turnout rates of black voters had been down nationwide in the post-Obama era, however black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party’s recent success in Virginia and nationwide. Black women show up at the polls. In the case of Virginia, of those who voted, 91 percent of black women supported Northam and 94 percent supported Hillary Clinton.

Catherine Read mentioned that in 2019, Virginia’s legislature will be 400 years old and 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Yet, every time a woman steps up to run, qualification hesitation rears its head.

The Nixon Southern Strategy brought the reversal of the party platforms of the Democrats and the Grand Old Party. Nixon’s strategy was to exploit the electorate so Republicans could hold fast to power despite demographic changes. It began as a grab for Southern states during the 1968 and 1972 elections. Nixon used a combination of dog-whistle politics as well as a deliberately racist agenda to effectively pull the carpet out from any social issue party planks the GOP had. Southerners who were formerly Democrats voted Republican instead, because Republicans of the Nixon era opposed progress in those areas to various extents (unlike the Republicans of before whose ranks included Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln).

“Parties will do what they can do to get elected” is a common voter complaint. It can feel like minority votes are sought after like prey—that all a campaign wants is that 50 + 1 percent of the vote rather than understanding and representing the individual needs of voters. In roughly two decades, people of color will be the majority. US demographic changes are shifting the electorate in favor of liberal views. So how do political parties better value the black vote? To assess a party’s commitment to the black vote, the Virginia Leadership panelists suggested, you look to two things: legislative action and candidate recruitment. EJ Scott suggested that the election and reelection of Barack Obama and the recent election of Justin Fairfax to Lieutenant Governor of Virginia demonstrate the Democrats’ commitment to the black community.

The panelists then addressed what members of the black community can do to further their impact in the political sphere. When asked what political PACs are looking for in a candidate, Read explained the importance of viability and diversifying the PAC board. “I don’t believe that it’s a science.” According to Read, candidates need two key things: first, a message that resonates with voters and secondly a community of grassroots organizers.

When assessing hopeful candidates  she urges her review committee to look at the candidates in a different way: who are their surrogates? Who is door knocking for them? What is their message?

Read stressed the power of grassroots funding platforms like GoFundMe. If supporters cannot write a check, then she suggests volunteering time and energy in making phone calls and door knocking. Read reminds us that we have to believe in and commit to the candidates we want to see elected.

As for advice to hopeful candidates, the panel suggested acting like a candidate as soon as you have any inkling you want to run for office. Specifically: get your name out there; get on boards; donate money; knock on doors for others.

They suggest this is in a sense “paying your dues.” And when the time comes for you to put your hat in the ring, you’re already a friendly face in your community and the people you approach are helping to elect someone they recognize.

The panel also suggested making a personal commitment to become a longtime activist. Volunteer to canvass and phone bank. Through these actions, party leaders will see your face. They’ll know you. Instead of waiting for the perfect time and the perfect resume of credentials, hopeful candidates should start their campaign on a platform of being passionate about the issues.

In one part of the panel discussion, panelists addressed the fact that few policies passed in the Virginia legislature have actually benefitted the black community. Scott said that is because the state legislature is majority Republican. There are currently forty-nine Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates and fifty-one Republicans.

One audience member offered some insight into the long memories of the black community. She worked as a campaign staffer in Florida for Hillary’s Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. She said she had many interactions with black men who refused to vote for Clinton because she severely harmed the black community with mass incarcerations and her use of the term “super predator.” Kofi Annan, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the NAACP, suggested that Democrats offer up a candidate who is more committed to the wellbeing of the black community rather than simply assuming the support of the black voter bloc.

At the end of the day, to see change black Americans must have a seat at the table. When you look at various boards and commissions, how is the black constituency represented?

The panel recognized that ultimately, the elevation of the black community and black candidates must come from within the community. All politics are local and if we can change the makeup of local boards and commissions with increased diversity, community members will see themselves reflected at city council meetings and in other elected and appointed positions. Tilly Blanding, a former 2018 House of Delegates candidate, agreed stating that no matter how frustrated and discouraged one may feel, “voting is the great equalizer.”