I was recently invited by the Rev. Al Sharpton to be on a panel during his National Action Network convention. Mr. Sharpton was gracious in his introduction, calling me an outstanding Republican.
While I appreciated the invitation, his kind words and the opportunity to dialogue with other black Americans about politics, policy and the black vote, I could not help but bring up the troubling fact of the 90 percent support that black voters consistently give to Democrats.
It is illogical for us to continue to back just one party overwhelmingly, as if black Americans were a monolithic group. We as a community have not reaped the gains that justify this level of blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. I am reminded of Janet Jackson’s song that asks, “What have you done for me lately?” It’s a simple question but one that black voters should be asking of Democrats.
There was a time when black voters identified with and backed Republicans. Prior to the end of the 1940s, some black voters identified as Democrats but being black and a Republican was the cultural norm. This was for many reasons, dating back to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the fact that the overwhelming number of blacks first elected to local, state and federal offices ran as Republicans. However, it was a trend that would not last forever.
Harry S. Truman laid the foundation for a great realignment, one that would forever change the political landscape. Truman made a direct pitch for the black vote, pushing for civil rights measures that included, as Philip Bump noted, “voter protections, a federal ban on lynching and bolstering existing civil rights laws.”
A second great impetus behind the great migration of blacks to the Democratic Party was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, which many blacks at the time believed were necessary to address racial and economic inequality.
But 50 years and roughly $7 trillion into the War on Poverty, there haven’t been great improvements in the condition of black Americans. As Shermichael Singleton notes in The Hill, “While the number of children living in poverty declined to 20 percent, or 14.7 million in 2013, for black children, the number remained a staggering 38 percent.”
Nearly half of all black children in the U.S. are still born into poverty. The black family has been all but decimated, and the economic recovery has been weakest for black families. Black unemployment rates remain the highest of any group at 9 percent as of March 2, with the average median income of a black household at $34,598 compared with $58,270 of the average white household.
This is not what I call progress.
A mere glance at any city from Chicago to Baltimore reveals communities in shambles. Failing school systems, joblessness, poverty — this is the current state of much of black America, yet we continue uncritically to support the Democratic Party.
Let me be clear — the Republican Party has not done a stellar job. In fact, the GOP has until recently largely ignored outreach to the black community, in part because of a belief that it would be a waste of time. Various members of the party still make comments that are perceived as negative or anti-black. Still, we must demand that both major political parties compete for our vote, and we do that by not allowing one party to enjoy a monopoly on our support.
While at the NAN convention, I noted that few were enamored of anyone in the establishment on either the Republican or Democratic side. That is evident by the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Democrats often show up when they need the black vote, as they did at the NAN gathering, but then they disappear after we vote for them in swarms.
As civil rights lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander notes, “Bill Clinton mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African-Americans by belting out ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in black churches while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.”
I warned those at the NAN convention not to allow Hillary Clinton, as with her husband, to walk in and state that everything is OK, because the reality for us is this is just not the case.
President Bill Clinton’s support and advocacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement was disastrous for the black community, with manufacturing jobs in the hundreds and thousands going overseas for cheaper labor and fewer taxes. Hillary Clinton supported NAFTA and other policies harmful to black American communities — and still does. Why would black voters support someone who supports policies that run counter to the advancement of black and poor people?
Democrats have taken the black vote for granted for far too long, and black voters have continued to fall for the party’s lame rhetoric time and time again. We must make both parties work to receive our support; if they are unwilling to do so, then we must consider the other party and other candidates.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, wrote that Democrats have “milked the black vote while creating policies that completely decimate black communities.” It’s time that we wake up and become smarter about our vote.
• Armstrong Williams is a national syndicated columnist and sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings LLC TV.