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Harvard Journal of African American Policy

Topic / Politics

Black votes matter


Source: Google Images

Black, White, Republican, and Democratic voters know and care about issues affecting the Black community more than ever before. In this unique election, candidates from both parties can’t afford to ignore these issues.

This election cycle is unlike any other in American history.

Black people have experienced endemic police brutality since 2012. In fact, according to The Counted, a project by The Guardian, 303 Black Americans were killed by police in 2015; Black Americans were more than two times more likely to be killed by police officers than Americans of any other race; and those Black Americans killed by police were two times more likely to be unarmed when killed than White Americans killed by police. However, as CNN recently reported, endemic police brutality against Blacks existed well before Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray became household names.

And there’s the change-up. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray are now household names. Try to name two Black Americans killed by a police officer before 2012. Stumped? I think most Americans would be. What makes this election unique is that the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers have received more media attention, and more members of the public seem to know and care about these deaths, than ever before in American history.

This claim is not anecdotal. There have been more online articles written about police killings of Black Americans in the last two years (over 200,000 to be exact) than there were from 2001 to 2011. And not just a few more—the recent two-year period outstrips the 2001-2011 era 8-to-1.

Police killings

As noted before, newspapers are not simply covering these killings—they are cataloguing them and noting racial disparities. Now, we are “The Counted.”

This media attention drives, and is driven by, huge levels of social media activity related to incidents of police violence against Black Americans. Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDontShoot, and #ICantBreathe note discrepancies; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown criticizes media for character assassinations of Black victims of police violence; #CrimingWhileWhite features testimonials by White individuals regarding their privileged treatment by police officers; and #SayHerName reminds users about endemic levels of police violence against Black women, and Black trans women in particular. And these hashtags reach people. In one weekend in February 2016 they reached over five million.

Hashtags(Data from on February 22, 2016.)

But these data understate the reach and impact of online content. Cell phone videos of Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe!” as officers choked him to death, of 12 year old Tamir Rice being shot outside of a recreation center, and of 50 year old Walter Scott being shot in the back as he fled arrest spread like wildfire on social media, made headlines in major publications, catalyzed protests and political speeches, and inspired voters of all races to call for reformed police practices. Perhaps in response to hashtags like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, the media now provide more and deeper coverage, discussing Black victims in more empathetic language than ever before. They discuss court proceedings of the officers involved in the homicides. They discuss political rallies and protests stemming from instances where officers are not prosecuted, indicted, or convicted. Op-eds skewer prosecutors and policymakers for doing too little in the face of persistent police violence. These trends show a media and an electorate that cares about this issue. And these trends should signal to politicians that they should be ready to talk about these issues.

Are politicians ready?

Research by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign–the focal point for those yearning for a future with lower levels of police violence against Blacks–is insightful.  BLM has released, and is calling on politicians to support, a 10 point policy platform.  Policies include requiring all officers to wear body cameras, independently investigating and prosecuting incidents of police violence, and training officers to reduce racial bias and improve crisis management skills.

In December of last year, BLM reviewed the platforms of major nominees from both parties and determined the extent to which these candidates are aligned with each item in their platform. The chart below assigns candidates a “BLM Alignment Score,” giving them one point for every BLM policy they support and subtracting one point for every policy they rebuke. It also provides a snapshot of current primary voter support by candidate.


(Source: Polling data as of February 18, 2016, from FiveThirtyEight, HuffPost Pollster, RealClear Politics, and 270 to Win)

Reviewing this table, two trends stand out. First, Republican candidates have much lower levels of alignment with BLM than Democratic candidates. In fact, the most supportive Republican candidates (Cruz and Rubio) have a score of zero, and are far less supportive than the least supportive Democrat (Clinton). Sanders has particularly remarkable BLM alignment, and supports more BLM policies than Clinton, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio combined.

Secondly, BLM alignment was lowest among front-runners. Clinton has remained silent on four BLM issues, and Trump has only spoken about one BLM issue—against it. If these candidates secure the nomination, we may see an election with little discussion of major BLM issues. And if either Rubio or Cruz secures the Republican nomination, the picture would only barely improve. This trend is troubling as an election in which candidates sidestep BLM issues could be the harbinger of four years without real reform or solutions.

This trend may also suggest that candidates in both parties have made a naive political calculus. Republican candidates may be playing to a base that they assume is more sympathetic to police officers than to the plight of Black Americans. Clinton may be assuming that general election voters are substantially less supportive of BLM policies and may fear that taking more pro-BLM positions now could hurt her in the general election.

However, candidates in both parties would do well to remember that this election cycle is unlike any other in American history. The key assumptions underlying the political calculus described above is that BLM issues don’t matter to many voters, and that talking about them could harm a politician’s chances of winning these voters over. That assumption may have lost its value this cycle. The problems BLM is trying to solve, and the solutions they are advancing, matter to more Americans than ever before—and not just Black Americans or liberal Democrats, but Whites and Republicans, too.

White voters are increasingly aware of the problems BLM seeks to solve. A December, 2014, CBS poll found that a majority of Whites believe police are racially profiling Blacks in police stops, and 33% of Whites believe police are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than against a non-Black person.  Many Whites are also frustrated with bias in the justice system. In fact, 49% of Whites were disappointed or angry about the failure to indict the officers who choked and killed Eric Garner.

Many Republicans are also more aware of the problems. An October 2014 Reason-Rupe poll found that 31% of Republicans believe the number of cases of police officers using excessive force is going up.  Moreover, 24% of Republicans believe police are too quick to use lethal force.  And 81% of self-identified conservatives and 75% of self-identified libertarians—both key primary and general election voting blocks for Republicans—no longer have a favorable view of the police. Staying silent in order to tacitly demonstrate support for police may no longer be the best political move for GOP candidates (let alone Democratic ones).

Even higher percentages of voters from both parties support key BLM solutions. The aforementioned December 2014 CBS Poll found that 59% of Whites support better police training.  Moreover, a May 2015 survey of 516 Georgia Republican primary voters found that 83% supported the use of body cameras for police officers.   And a December 2014 survey found that over 75% of both Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans supported body cameras for police officers and independent prosecutors in excessive use of force cases. Finally, an August 2015 survey found that over 2/3 of Black, Latino, and White voters—and 70% of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—supported reforming civil asset forfeiture laws—a cornerstone of for-profit policing.

Law enforcement reforms

But this election will not be determined by White voters alone, especially as Black voters have overtaken White voters in turnout in the last two presidential elections, and especially as the share of the electorate that is White has steadily decreased over the last few elections.


(Source: United States Election Project)

There is strong evidence that Black voters care deeply about BLM issues. A survey of “Obama surge voters”—the group of young, Black voters that helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012—found that “fighting racism” was the most important issue to this key demographic. Other than jobs, no issue was nearly as important to this group.

African Americans

Given these data, candidates from both parties may want to adjust their strategies—and fast. In the Republican Primary, to secure a competitive advantage against Trump, Rubio and Cruz would be wise to appeal to the over 75% of conservative Republican voters who support body cameras and independent prosecutors. Moreover, given that over 70% of Republicans support civil asset forfeiture reform, they may want to broadcast their support for ending for-profit-policing.

On the Democratic side, Clinton may be taking a political risk by staying silent about many BLM issues that matter deeply to an increasingly politically active core of Black voters (who were critical to Obama’s recent victories in the 2008 primary and 2008 and 2012 general elections). Clinton’s track record has led Michelle Alexander to publicly state that “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” Sanders’ support for BLM issues, meanwhile, has led to endorsements by prominent Black figures like Keith Ellison, Ben Jealous, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornell West, and Killer Mike.

Given her vulnerability, and the importance of non-White voters to her polling advantage, Clinton may want to end her silence on key BLM issues that Sanders supports, such as ending for-profit policing, and increasing community representation and oversight. Sanders, meanwhile, may want to bring attention to his alignment with BLM on those issues to increase his lagging support among Black voters, and to broaden his support among moderate Democrats.

These opportunities and vulnerabilities will only grow stronger over time. With a consistent and intensifying drumbeat of coverage and social media traffic regarding police shootings of unarmed Black people, politicians who fail to speak out about these issues leave themselves increasingly vulnerable to being skewered by a populace and media institution that cares about these issues more than ever before.

So do Black Votes Matter? They do to candidates who want to win this unique election.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Global Risk Insights.