Despite Super Bowl ads, targeted outreach to HBCUs, and even handing out envelopes of cash, presidential candidates are missing why some Black male voters feel invisible in the 2020 election. If they were listening to Black men, they would hear: “Unsure if I even want to vote this time… I understand why Black men feel left out… It’s just a lot of hate for us…” These comments capture the perception, and oftentimes the reality, that Black men are omitted from policy decision making.
Successful candidates must work harder to understand Black men’s priorities and speak to our aspirations for a better future. Save your slogans and your soundbites, Black men are looking for an authentic plan to address economic growth in Black communities, vocational and technological training that aligns with jobs, access to social services, and criminal justice reform.
Simply put, Black men prioritize the economy (just like most voters). Similar to most men, regardless of race or social class, work is intrinsically tied to Black men’s identities and how they value themselves. When the impact of work is weakened, it affects all aspects of their lives. While President Trump is touting low unemployment numbers, the unemployment rate of Black men in cities with low job growth such as Memphis, Detroit, and Newark is quadruple that of Whites in those cities, and significantly higher than the Black rate overall. Furthermore, the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively seeking a job. Some Black men have opted out of the labor market because of dismal opportunities. Many Black men who are working are underpaid, have subpar work benefits, and struggle to put food on the table.
Black men are underrepresented in the best 15 occupations and overrepresented in the bottom 15 occupations for men.
There is a lack of high-quality jobs in geographic areas where most Black men live. The work deficits in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore are systemic—a result both of the historical legacy and current policies of redlining, restrictive covenants, and racism. Predominately Black cities have job sectors with slow growth and are removed from economic hubs best positioned for future opportunities. Based on job growth potential, Black men are underrepresented in the best 15 occupations and overrepresented in the bottom 15 occupations for men. Black Americans are mostly concentrated in low-wage jobs that have unstable benefits and are most likely to be in occupations susceptible to technical displacement (production, food service, retail, and clerical work). Education and health professions, two occupations most resistant to technical displacement, should be a focus of vocational and technical training in predominately Black communities. However, Black men do not represent a large share in either of these fields.
Not only are Black men left out of the mainstream labor market, they are also being left out of the gig economy. One big source of frustration for Black men is their omission from the drug industry (including the legalization of marijuana and the manufacturing of opioids). The total retail value of hemp-related products was estimated to be $820 million in 2017. Marijuana possession helped to single-handedly incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black males over the past 30 years. As a group, Black men are disproportionately incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses; yet, that same group is mostly failing to reap rewards from federal- and state-level efforts to legalize hemp or marijuana products. Those economic benefits flow mostly to their White counterparts.
Furthermore, crack cocaine, which had huge disparities in sentencing relative to powder cocaine, was viewed through the policy lens of criminalization, whereas the opioid epidemic is viewed through the policy lens of addiction and treatment. To policymakers, crack cocaine users were criminals who posed a public safety threat, while opioid users are victims in need of public health assistance. The dichotomy of criminal/addict alters how people are able to access and utilize social services. Keon Gilbert at Saint Louis University has done extensive research on Black men’s healthcare utilization. He finds that Black men struggle to navigate the moving parts of healthcare. Gilbert elected to work with organizations, like 100 Black Men, who are taking health and social services directly to communities. 100 Black Men is a national organization that improves the educational and economic opportunities for young people most susceptible to the school to prison pipeline. With the St. Louis Chapter, Gilbert created The Barbershop Tour, which conducts health screenings at barbershops and gives Black men advice on how to navigate social services.
On the topic of social services, Black men have a contentious relationship with child support agencies, judges, and courts that continue to inhibit their ability to spend quality time with their children. Defying stereotypes, studies show that Black men, compared to men in other racial groups, are more likely to bathe children, play and read to their children, take children to activities, help with homework, and talk with children about their day. Yet, the narrative about Black fathers rarely includes these important outcomes.
Concerns about social services are largely absent when discussing Black men. Trump and his team recognize that if they can continue to disenfranchise returning citizens, make other Black men feel further marginalized by the Democratic Party, and appeal to college-educated Black men (1 in 6 college-educated Black men voted for Trump in 2016), they set up a recipe for “winning” the Black male vote even if they technically lose in raw numbers. Black men who vote for Trump are often highly educated, more fiscally conservative, and extremely religious. Political messages about abortion and Planned Parenthood aiming to dismantle the Black community resonate with them.
Still, what happens in the South Carolina primary and on Super Tuesday may tell us a lot about what will occur in the 2020 presidential election. South Carolina will test Joe Biden’s hold on Black voters when compared to Bernie Sanders. Relative to other voting groups, Black Americans report being most likely to support Mike Bloomberg (who could use Super Tuesday as a way to change the landscape of the 2020 election). For now, Tom Steyer seems positioned to acquire votes in South Carolina. Elizabeth Warren, though getting on-the-ground support from John Legend in South Carolina, is polling low with Black Americans, as is Amy Klobuchar. Pete Buttigieg struggled to address policing, criminal justice reform, and racism in his mid-sized city of South Bend, IN; therefore, Blacks are leery of his ability to address race on a national scale.
Bloomberg has a troubling legacy in the criminal justice space as well. However, his track record of success with the economy might outweigh this legacy, even with Black men. With Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative that he delivered in Tulsa (the site of the Black Wall Street Massacre), he has gained support from several Black members of Congress and mayors including Washington, DC’s Muriel Bowser and Little Rock’s Frank Scott, Jr. (who serves as co-chair of the Mike for Black America National Leadership Council). Though Bloomberg has apologized for his handling of stop-and-frisk policies in New York City, some Black men question his sincerity based on his previous comments and actions. A 2011 study of 700,000 stops in New York City found that less than 2 percent of the stops resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. However, over 50 percent of the stops were of Black males, and half of the time that physical force was used the victim was Black. Despite this, some Black men that I talked to report being willing to deal with Bloomberg’s poor track record on policing (especially since some of the other Democratic candidates supported crime bills in the 1990s) because Bloomberg is a moderate Democrat who has a plan for addressing the job and infrastructure deficits in Black communities.
Though many political candidates and policymakers are now realizing the detrimental effects of stop-and-frisk and three-strike policies, the bipartisan First Step Act should expand to include more vocational and technical training for returning citizens and investments to grow the local economies of predominately Black cities. Policymakers such as Nashville Metro Councilman Brandon Taylor understands this. For him, the 2020 election is more than just about defeating Trump. Taylor, who is undecided about who he will vote for on Super Tuesday, aims to illuminate the lack of infrastructure in his district and implement a series of policies related to reentry and reparations to better the lives of people in the 37208 Nashville zip code.
Heading into March, Democratic candidates will aim to build on the 2018 midterm election turnout numbers, increase voter turnout from 2016, and match the excitement of the 2008 and 2012 Presidential campaigns of Barack Obama. Though turnout among Blacks was lower in 2016 than in 2012 or 2008, Black men still turned out at higher rates than Latino and Asian men. Given what I laid out as the key issues for Black men, it will be tough for Democratic candidates to convince Black men they should be trusted (or that Black men will be “seen” as an integral part of the political process). As a 40-year-old Black man from Atlanta who is a returning citizen and single father of a preteen told me, “When Obama was in office, it was one of the first times I felt seen in politics.”