The black vote
By Antony Davies & James Harrigan
Published: Saturday, October 27, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Barack Obama carried 96 percent of the black vote in 2008. All indications are that he will do similarly well with that demographic next month, which is no surprise given nearly monolithic black identification with the Democratic Party and Obama's status as the first black president.
The black vote has been, and likely will continue to be, safely and solidly Democrat.
But should it be?
To answer that question, we might reformulate Ronald Reagan's mantra from 1980: Are blacks better off now than they were four years ago? By the numbers, the answer is an unqualified no. And the evidence is overwhelming.
During the George W. Bush years, median income for blacks was 80 percent of that for whites. That number has been declining steadily throughout Obama's term in office and was 75 percent in 2011, the last year for which census data are available.
To put this in clear terms, the median black income was $28,000 (in today's terms) versus a $35,100 median white income when Bush left office. By 2011, the median black income had fallen to $23,600 while the median white income had increased to $35,300.
This is due, in no small part, to unemployment. Here blacks have fared considerably worse than their white counterparts as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official unemployment rate for blacks rose from 10 percent in 2008 to 14.5 percent today, while unemployment for whites increased from 5.2 percent to 7.2 percent over the same period.
But the official unemployment figures understate the reality. When workers are unemployed so long that they stop looking for work, the government stops counting them as unemployed. Adding back those discouraged workers shows that the actual unemployment rate for blacks rose from 10 percent in 2007 to 17.7 percent today, whereas white unemployment increased from 7.2 percent to 10.4 percent during the same period.
If unemployment paints a bleak picture, incarceration rates make matters considerably worse. Blacks today are imprisoned at almost seven times the rate at which whites are imprisoned. The majority of these people are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses.
In perhaps the most telling metric, the poverty rate for blacks rose from less than 35 percent in 2008 to almost 39 percent in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites during the same period was 15.8 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.
Much of America is worse off today than it was four years ago. But blacks are so disproportionately worse off it is a wonder that Obama takes the black vote for granted. It is even more a wonder that he is right to do so.
Blacks might well support him in overwhelming numbers in the upcoming election. But one day soon, Democrats will have to take history into account.
There was a time when the black vote was solidly Republican. This is not surprising, given that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. Blacks did not begin voting for Democrats in large numbers until Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the presidency in 1932. And even after that, Republican candidates were able to win large portions of the black vote.
Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent of the black vote in 1956. Richard Nixon took 32 percent in 1960 when he ran against John F. Kennedy.
So what happened? In 1964 Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, marshaled the Civil Rights Act through Congress. His Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, opposed it. Johnson went on to win the election of 1964 with 94 percent of the black vote.
Blacks asked the simple question, “What have you done for us lately?,” and they walked away from the Republican Party en masse.
It took more than 100 years from Lincoln's election for that to happen but happen it did. That was 48 years ago. How long will it take black Americans to look at the evidence before them once again?
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University and an affiliated senior scholar at the Mercatus Center. James Harrigan is a fellow of the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University.
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The article does, of course, address these issues in a broader context, thus our comparison of black and white fortunes over the past four years. We nowhere say that blacks are voting for Obama because of his skin color. We do not say that because it is not particularly relevant. What we do say, and what we mean, is that black support of the Democratic party has been nearly monolithic for some time, and for understandable reasons. The very reasons that gave rise to that wholesale support, though, need to be reexamined. Just as blacks walked away from the Republican party when they perceived that the Republicans did not address issues that were important to them, so too will they walk away from the Democrats (likely in part, not in whole) when a sober assessment is made. Blacks are worse off than they were four years ago, both in absolute terms, and relative to their white counterparts. The belief that the Democratic party serves their interests is not one based in empirical evidence. Indeed, the evidence supports a contrary conclusion. Like many associations, it is emotive and historical. But those associations are the ones that come to be redefined over time. In the end this is the case because it should be the case. The last two paragraphs make this point unambiguously. James R. Harrigan (speaking only as one half of the author team)
Submitted by: Will on Monday, October 29, 2012
The authors contend that African-Americans are voting for President Obama in huge numbers, and for the Democratic party in general, for reasons that don't align with their economic self- interest. In order to address this contention, the article focused on data suggesting African- Americans are economically worse off than they were four years ago as support of their contention. I have a few problems with this: - The authors seem to be confused as to whether they are looking at why African-Americans vote Democratic or why they voted (and are voting again) for President Obama. Despite some initial vacillating statements, I can only assume the authors are really interested in why blacks vote for President Obama, as the limited data presented in the article relates solely to President Obama's first term. The implication seems to be that African-American voters are casting their vote for Obama simply because of his skin color, but no evidence is offered in this regard. I have to ask, however- why give yourselves the wiggle room? You seem to be saying that black people should reconsider voting for President Obama- so say that. Why the misdirection of pretending this article has anything to do with (longstanding, historical) black support of the Democratic Party? - My main issue with this article, however, is that it examines an extremely complex issue (why black people are voting for Obama) by boiling it down in a surprisingly simplistic way. There is absolutely no effort here to examine why the economic fortunes of African-Americans have suffered over the last four years, or to put those declines in a broader context (I heard something recently about a global economic crisis). Nor do the authors attempt to determine whether the downturn has anything to do with the actual policies of the Obama Administration, to say nothing of trying to suggest real policy alternatives that would actually, you know, help anyone. Of course, the authors utterly fail even to acknowledge that perhaps many African-Americans vote Democratic, and continue to vote Democratic, because the alternative seems to be at best no improvement, or at worst a significant step backwards. If you want to argue that President Obama has let African-Americans down, as the authors seem to do, then wouldn't your argument be strengthened by showing how GOP policies would somehow make things better for black people? Alas, no such information was provided- I will leave it to other readers to consider why that is. It certainly appeared to me that the authors ask a very broad question, present an incredibly narrow data set in order to get the answer they were hoping to get, and use that answer to argue that it's time for a whole group of people to change the way they think about that broad question as a result. Let me see if I can capture the level of sophistication of the argument made in this article. Say that I have always driven Chevy cars, and have had good luck with them, but recently I bought a new Chevy and it had engine trouble. Based on the logic in this article, because I bought a new Chevy (i.e., President Obama's first term), and that new Chevy had engine trouble (i.e., my economic situation deteriorated during his term), I should never drive that Chevy again (i.e., not vote to reelect President Obama). Oh sorry- that's not true. Applying the logic of this article, I should reconsider ever driving ANY Chevy- or apparently voting for any Democrat- ever again. Not a word about how my car trouble might have been caused by faulty maintenance, by an aftermarket alteration, unusual driving conditions, etc. Nope- the car had trouble, so get rid of it. I don't think that argument would persuade many car owners- so I can't see how an analogous argument would be very persuasive to many voters. I'll end with this: In the 2008 election, John McCain won 4% of the black vote, while the latest polls show Mitt Romney with ZERO percent of the black vote. So assuming for the moment that your argument had merit, shouldn't the black vote be moving in the other direction, and not becoming more solidly Democratic? Of course, people vote for all sorts of reasons and not always in their own economic self-interest. Fair enough- and that's a phenomenon you see with voters for both parties. But when African- Americans go to vote and the amount of voters supporting the GOP candidate aren't even statistically significant, is it logical to conclude that virtually ALL African-Americans vote against their economic self-interest, when voters of other races aren't as unified in their voting patterns? In the end, your analysis falls so far short here that it adds little to a topic that really should be explored more thoroughly.