Black Minnesotans Stick With Dems--for Now

Many diminishing returns: African Americans turned out more and got less this election season
Diana Watters

By Shannon Gibney

Black voters--especially black women voters--came out in record numbers last Tuesday in Minnesota, registering their concerns about everything from health care to education to the bleak job market.

At the River of Life Lutheran Church on a cold and windy evening, 26-year-old Markesha Burton, a home health aide, said that she was voting "against the war." What would happen if Bush won? "Everyone's going to be disappointed."

At the same precinct a little later, I ran into Frank, a 31-year-old homeless black man who was hoping that a regime change would mean some job prospects, and perhaps a place to lay his head. "I don't want Bush in office," he said. "Kerry seems like he'll make it easier, even just a little easier for black males to get jobs. We need better jobs, kids need to get better health care, better education opportunities."

Just down the road at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, 28-year-old Helen Burton, an accountant, checked off a litany of concerns she wants her national, state, and local representatives to address: "child care, children's education, more jobs, better paying jobs, more opportunities and programs for minorities."

Twenty minutes later, 19-year-old Donna Jackson emerged from the center's front door, blowing into her hands. This was the first vote she had ever cast, and things had gone well--no confusion, no problems. Jackson's motivation to vote? "I need to live in a country that's at peace," she said, holding her elbows. "I just really don't feel safe in my own country right now."

Nationally, black voters supported John Kerry with 89 percent of their votes, a slight decrease from the 92 percent Al Gore won four years ago, but obviously still an overwhelming proportion. White voters, of course, were far more divided. Compared to African Americans, they seemed to be less concerned about identifying the issues that would affect them personally and more concerned about the "principles" and "values" espoused, particularly by Republicans, in the race. To put it another way, white Americans seemed to be swayed more by a conservative social agenda, and generally have less trouble voting against their own interests in areas like health care, education, and the economy in order to uphold these principles. (The South is a perfect embodiment of the point, as attested by the fact that even its poorest states have consistently voted Republican ever since the passage of federal civil rights legislation in the '60s, which, as then-President Lyndon Johnson predicted, split the Democratic base in half and precipitated a massive exodus of "social conservatives"--also known as "racists" in some circles--to the Republican party.)

African Americans are generally a conservative bunch when it comes to social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, but we have a strong tradition of economic progressivism that almost always trumps the social concerns come election time--a state of affairs the Democratic party has exploited for years without offering much in return.

Perhaps this is because race, poverty, and pocketbook issues are closely correlated--especially in Minnesota, which is home to greater black/white disparities in incarceration, education, homeownership, and out-of-home placement of children than any other state in the union. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: Black voters in Minnesota and elsewhere are clearly articulating a set of values that used to be at the heart of the Democratic party, way back when FDR was the Head White Man In Charge: support of unions, universal health care, social security for all, funding domestic and social service programs rather than preemptive strikes on other countries. (Another issue much on the minds of African Americans is the looming elephant in the room--the skyrocketing and already epidemic levels of incarceration in black communities--but neither candidate nor either party addressed this matter in the campaign.)

Already, though, there are rumblings in some black circles that this race proved once and for all that the Democratic Party, as we have known it, is dead. Here is one e-mail message that was circulated widely on Thursday, two days after the election: "Mainstream media reports claim 'America Has Spoken,' in response to the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. However, I am not quite sure if they actually know what all Americans were saying. Black Americans, in particular, showed up to the polls in record numbers, many of whom do not favor the president-elect's policies and agenda. Nevertheless, their voices have value and significance that must not be ignored.

"We must take advantage of the momentum and passion for change that remains present in our communities. Therefore, I propose that we organize a political action committee on a national level, to address the concerns of our communities. We want to act solely in response to the issues that have been routinely ignored and remain unaddressed by all politicians, political parties, and organizations." The e-mail, composed by local writer D'Ivoire Johnson, goes on to encourage all recipients to organize weekly meetings in communities around the nation in order to strategize.

This has to be discomfiting to the chieftains of the Democratic Party: Aren't they supposed to do the strategizing on behalf of black America's interests? I am not suggesting that a single e-mail spells a coast-to-coast revolution to transform the political process in a way that gives black America a real voice. I am suggesting, however, that African Americans may not be long for the Democratic Party, at least in its current incarnation. The sentiment on the street, in the office, and even in cyberspace, is "If you won't speak up, we will."

But that still won't help Northside resident Latonya Clark get through the next four years. The 24-year-old medical office administrator and single mother was voting at Phyllis Wheatley Tuesday night, in order to "improve outcomes for single mothers, create more resources for us, and bring back in budgets for programs like Head Start and after-school programs." And what if Bush won? She looked at me as though I had asked the most obvious question in the world. "I'll just keep doing what I'm doing," she said. "What else can I do?"


Shannon Gibney is managing editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state's oldest black newspaper. She welcomes reader responses to [email protected].

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