Why the Progressive Message Isn’t Resonating With Older African Americans

They want a president who will get things back to where they were in 2016, not 1950. 

One of the questions that has stumped (mostly white) reporters during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is the overwhelming support Joe Biden is getting from African American voters. While it is true that other candidates garner some support from younger black voters, the older crowd remains firmly in Biden’s camp.

We’ve heard some helpful explanations of this phenomenon from African American commentators recently, like Charles Blow and Marcus Johnson. But Jason Johnson from The Root went right to the source and talked to a group of older black voters. A couple of things he heard stood out to me. First of all, these folks have been watching the political scene for decades now—and they’ve drawn some conclusions.

Senior Week committee members see Trump as a threat and have policy preferences just like everyone else. However, they have seen decades of “working class” white America voting against their own economic interests if it meant screwing over African Americans, too. So many of them looked for the best candidate for black America this week —one you could also sneak by white folks.

There has been a raging debate among Democrats for decades about whether it is possible to win back white working-class voters. More than any other group, African Americans know that racism sits at the center of that discussion. Given that their primary objective is to beat Donald Trump, these older black voters have made an interesting calculation. They are betting on a candidate they can “sneak by white folks.”

I suspect that one of the things that went unsaid in these discussions is that older African Americans have spent years making that kind of calculation and never succumbed to the idea that they have to be emotionally inspired by a presidential candidate. That leaves them free to be pragmatic on the question that seems to be front and center in 2020—electability.

At one point, Johnson gives us a hint about why so many older African Americans are rejecting the arguments made by the more progressive candidates.

Just this week, Yang, again focusing on white voters, said that growth and progress have slowed for all Americans since the 1940s. I thought Yang was supposed to be good at MATH? Literally every generation of black people has done better than the previous one, (even kids in the ’90s) but that doesn’t mean the ’40s were some golden age either. Trust me, we have committee members born in the ’40s—and by almost every empirical measure black Americans are better off in 2020 than we were in 1940.

Embedded in the minds of most white people—regardless of party affiliation—is the idea that life was better for middle-class Americans in the aftermath of World War II. Progressives hail things like FDR’s New Deal and the rise of unions that spurred the hopes of an American dream.

What we tend to forget is that, for African Americans, racism and Jim Crow were alive and well through all of that. So the 40s and 50s were hardly a golden age for them. The trajectory of their lives didn’t change until years after the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, African Americans started to buy into the so-called “American dream.” Back in 2011, Ellis Cose identified the country’s “new optimists.”

African-Americans, long accustomed to frustration in their pursuit of opportunity and respect, are amazingly upbeat, consistently astounding pollsters with their hopefulness. Earlier this year, when a Washington Post–Kaiser–Harvard poll asked respondents whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites.

Although many African Americans identify long-standing problems that still plague the community—such as unemployment and access to high-quality education—the black population remains largely optimistic about the future and satisfied with the direction the country is going in, according to a new survey by Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The rise of that kind of optimism within the African American community coincided with the rise of white progressive angst about income inequality and the way that it was killing the American dream. In addition to the election of this country’s first African American president, that helps explain the disconnect between progressives and black voters during the Obama presidency.

Of course, the racism that fueled the election of Donald Trump turned all of that on its head. But that recent history helps explain why older African Americans would be suspicious about the kinds of deep structural changes proposed by the more progressive presidential candidates. Not only are they betting on Biden being the candidate they can sneak by white voters, they simply want a president who will get things back to where they were in 2016—not 1950.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.