Why are Blacks Democrats?

The Kheel Center

Why are Blacks Democrats?

By Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird

African Americans are Democrats. Since 1968 no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 13% of the African American vote and surveys of African Americans regularly show that upwards of 80% of African Americans self-identify as Democrats.  However, understanding why African Americans are such steadfast supporters of the Democratic Party is not as straightforward as it seems. Although committed to the Democratic Party, African Americans are actually one of the most conservative blocs of Democratic supporters. As political scientist Tasha Philpot’s 2017 book title suggests, African Americans are “Conservative but Not Republican.” Understanding how it is that African Americans have been able to maintain such strong support for the Democratic Party despite their increasingly diverging interest with the party is the subject of our new book, Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.

Understanding why African Americans are such steadfast supporters of the Democratic Party is not as straightforward as it seems. Although committed to the Democratic Party, African Americans are actually one of the most conservative blocs of Democratic supporters.

In the book we show that African Americans have a long, complicated history with party politics. Historically, blacks have been part of both major parties. When African American men first obtained the right to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 they nearly all identified and supported the Republican Party and its candidates; rewarding the Party of Lincoln for its commitment to ending slavery and expanding black civil rights. However, as political power was gradually returned to Southern Democrats, in part through the 1877 compromise which resolved the disputed 1876 presidential election, African Americans, who at this time nearly all resided in Southern states, were once again stripped of their voting rights.    

It would not be until the early 20th century, following the large-scale migration of African Americans to Northern cities in search of employment and refuge from the repressive Jim Crow policies of the South, that we would see African Americans reengaging in party politics. In the North, the Democratic Party, through its commitment to organized labor would for the first time begin making inroads with black voters. Despite this, many African Americans both North and South maintained commitments to the Republican Party. It was only when the Democratic Party took up the mantle of Civil Rights in the mid to late 1960’s that black support for the Party coalesced into the reliable Democratic voting bloc we know today.

While the historical antecedents of black Democratic party support are rather straight forward, understanding how it is that, for nearly 50 years, black Americans have been able to remain unified in their support for the Democratic Party, is a more complicated question, especially given the growing economic and political diversity of African Americans over this time period.  For example, since the 1960’s there has been significant growth in both the black middle and upper classes and perhaps even more interesting, substantial diversification of black political views. Since the 1960’s blacks have become increasingly more moderate and even conservative on a number of important political issues including certain racial policies.  Why haven’t these changes resulted in an opportunity for Republicans to gain support from African Americans?

Supporting the Democratic Party has come to be understood as just something you do as a black person, an expectation of behavior meant to empower the racial group.

In the book we argue that in an effort to leverage their political strength as a minority group in a majority based political system, black Americans have come to prioritize group solidarity in party politics. This partisan loyalty is maintained through a strategic social process that we call racialized social constraint, where by support for the Democratic Party has come to be defined as a norm of group behavior. In other words, supporting the Democratic Party has come to be understood as just something you do as a black person, an expectation of behavior meant to empower the racial group.

Adherence with this norm of Democratic Party support is insured through a set of social rewards and penalties which recognize compliance and punish defection of racial group members. Interestingly, it is the social and spatial segregation of black Americans that makes all this work.  It is through racially segregated spaces that blacks become aware of the importance of the party norm for the racial group. And it is within these segregated spaces that social rewards for compliance and penalties for defection can come to define an individual’s social status within the group. The result of all this is that to the extent that any individual black American values their relationship with other black Americans, they will continue to act in accordance with the group norm of party support lest they find themselves socially isolated.

This decision to ensure collective action for the larger group interest is an effective strategy for leveraging political power, especially in a two-party system. A divided group minimizes the likelihood of responsiveness by either party, but as a partisan voting bloc, blacks are positioned to push their issues onto the party agenda. If the Democrats fail to be responsive blacks can threaten to withhold their vote by not turning out. This is how racialized social constraint maintains both black party loyalty and black political power.

Ismail K. White is associate professor of political science at Duke University. White is the coeditor of African-American Political Psychology: Identity, Opinion, and Action in the Post-Civil Rights EraChryl N. Laird is assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College. Twitter @chryllaird