African Americans Have Been Blocked From Voting, but the Black Vote is Not a ‘Bloc’

Voter registration drive at Black Expo, an annual exhibit of Black talent, education, and products in Chicago, October 1973. 

Black History Month’s theme for 2020 is African Americans and the Vote. Three Penn scholars define what the “Black vote” means when viewed through history, and what it doesn’t mean when viewed as an indivisible bloc.

Two people sign papers registering a third person to vote at the Black Expo in 1973, behind the table a sign reads "Get a piece of the action Register now TO VOTE"
Voter registration drive at Black Expo, an annual exhibit of Black talent, education, and products in Chicago, October 1973. 
Black History Month has been thematic since its inception in 1976, not to distill focus on the African American experience but to add to a collection of historical awareness and food for thought. This year’s theme, African Americans and the Vote, is deceptive in its title, and, as Penn researchers elaborate, on the face may be an inaccurate representation of singularity. In fact, the African American vote spans a history that extends beyond the adoption of Black suffrage in America, has been politically and socially fraught, and is representative of as diverse a voting body as the country at large. In short, there is not one Black vote, and there is not one history of the Black vote. The nuance is at the heart of Black History Month’s theme, and implores all Americans to understand the history and the current climate, to educate themselves on what it means to be Black in the American polity.

Penn Today reached out to current and former Penn faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences to expound on the idea of the African Americans and the vote. Adolph ReedKathleen Brown, and Mary Francis Berry each spoke on the historical state of voting for African Americans, and the current election year. Black History Month’s origin goes back to February 1926 when Carter G. Woodson implement Negro History Week. Woodson, a writer and historian who founded of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, spent his career working to popularize knowledge about the history of Black people. It was Woodson’s goal to see African American history celebrated as a one-week affair, and urged schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. By the late 1960s, college campuses across the country had begun to replace Negro History Week with Black History Month, and designated an annual theme.

historical photo of a group of people holding protest signs  demanding the right to vote, an end to police brutality.
African American demonstrators outside the White House on March 12, 1965.

2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage. It also marks 150 years since the Fifteenth Amendment, which won the right for Black men to vote in America. For both Black men and women, the constitutional right to vote has not hewed historically with the ease and accessibility of voting. Nor, as Reed and Brown point out, the privilege of voting for a candidate who most resembles them in terms of identity and cosmology. The women’s suffrage movement—a fractious campaign that spanned over eighty years—was rife with tension between former abolitionists, eager to see newly freed Black people enfranchised, and white women who put their own access to vote ahead of a true “women’s suffrage.”

Disenfranchisement for all Black voters has been a common roadblock to equality at the polls both before and after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the country’s current two-party system, more Black candidates at the local and state levels may help usher new generations of voters to the polls, and even more electoral visibility for alternative political parties. But, as Brown, Reed, and Berry all stress, to reduce Black voters to an indivisible unit is to deny African American voters singular identities, and distills the implied cohesion of “the Black vote” to a simple matter of opposition to racial inequality, while bypassing the broad range of political issues white voters can prioritize: economic uncertainty, religious freedom, environmentalism, etc. Black politics are more complex than simply a shared opposition to racial discrimination. The theme of this years’ Black History Month is to highlight that.

Mistaking the Black vote for singularity, and blanket disenfranchisement

“The idea of a Black vote is itself historically specific, and is bound up in a circular argument. It’s assumed that the definitive concern is race. To assume that all Black Americans are concerned about racial justice and racial equality slides into a taxonomy issue, that is, reduces Black Americans’ concerns to issues that supposedly have to do with racial classification, and contends that only questions bearing directly or explicitly on race matter to African Americans. What marks the boundaries of Black politics? Racial justice and equality are important to all African Americans, but it doesn’t end there.

“What we think of as the Black vote is a product of a racially defined interest-group politics that emerged as the consolidation of the victorious social movement of the 1960s. In that interest group people’s interests can be reduced to what elites have defined as ‘Black people’s concerns.’ But Black people are concerned about a lot of things, not just race—women’s issues, sexual identity, union politics, etc. But then there are arguments about political campaigns as not being ‘Black specific.’

“There are more Black people in the U.S. than the entire population of Canada. Do Canadian voters have Canadian essentialism? In the U.S., income inequality has been increasing across the board since the 1960s and ‘70s; this is a function of capitalist class dynamics, not simply race, and that’s true even of the worsening economic conditions experienced by Black people. If what’s understood to be a Black agenda is erasing disparities, you don’t address the general system of inequality. In the disparities framework, Black people disappear in every dimension of life except racial status. There is no room for even imagining their interests as postal workers, homeowners, railroad maintenance workers, parents, students, stamp collectors, etc.

“In a polity defined by the democratic selection of leadership, things go fine when the lower tier accepts the agenda of the people at the top. At the moment when the lower tier acts up, the top tries to reduce access. After the defeat of the populist insurgency in the 1890s, and since Reagan empowered the right wing, the majority went after disenfranchisement. The main reason to disenfranchise voters is to actively take Black people out of the political equation for two reasons: One, because of racism, and two, because Black people voted the wrong way.

“If Black voters had voted with the right-wing, disenfranchisement would not have been so actively sought. Now, in the 21st century, there is no question—the Republican Party has been openly and stealthily disenfranchising voters. The objective is to disenfranchise Black people, but even deeper, to disenfranchise people who aren’t voting Republican. Reducing the Black vote to an indivisible bloc helps with this.

“However, I think it’s narrow and shortsighted not to vote. Most of the significant votes I’ve cast have been because ‘the other candidate is worse.’ The time to change who and what we vote for is not at the poll but between the elections.”

“Black voting rights have a long history of being denied, contested, defrauded, and obstructed. In the early years of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men in the South voted for Black Republicans, the party of Lincoln. During this era, Black men became state and national officeholders in numbers that have yet to be surpassed. Entire communities of women as well as men turned out on Election Day, testifying to the importance of the vote. Abandonment by the federal government in 1877 left Black voters vulnerable to terrorist tactics, and Jim Crow laws subsequently defrauded Black southerners of the vote.

Historical rendering of a portrait of the first African American senator and Represenatives
Group portrait of African American legislators: Robert C. De Large, Jefferson H. Long, H.R. Revels, Benj. S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Joseph H. Rainy [i.e., Rainey], and R. Brown Elliot.

“Many Black women supported the women’s suffrage movement as it gathered momentum in the early twentieth century, despite the obvious racism of the movement’s leadership. Ida B. Wells, Fannie Barrier Williams, Mary Church Terrell, and locally, Gertrude Bustill Mossell [a relative of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander] all saw possibilities for African American empowerment in women’s suffrage. White suffragists from the North pandered to white supremacists in the South, which included some of the movement’s most important political allies. It is no exaggeration to say that the women’s suffrage amendment achieved ratification in 1920 because white allies of the movement considered white women’s vote to be a valuable new tool to protect white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Upon the amendment’s ratification in 1920, some African American women, including in states like Virginia and Georgia, managed to circumvent voting restrictions to cast their ballots.

“The historic shift in African American national political party affiliation came in the 1930s during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, a feminist social reformer who, unlike her husband, was connected politically and personally to many Black educators and activists, advocated for programs and policies that ultimately helped to sway Black voters to support the Democratic Party. Historians now judge FDR harshly for the half-measures of his policy and his continued pandering to racist southern Democrats. But the historic shift in party affiliation had taken place.

“The quandary for Black voters today is to be a minority population in a political system with only two parties in which the winner takes all. In such a system, the diverse interests of African American voters can rarely be represented. A small proportion of African American voters have become Republicans because they are tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party.”

Despite the obstacles, turn up to vote

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history. She is the author of twelve books, including “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, which exposes the ways Black voters have experienced voter discrimination in the U.S., including felon disfranchisement, voter identification laws, and hard-to-access polling locations with limited hours. 

“Weak turnout for elections is commonplace in most U.S. elections. So, making promises, though never kept, is one way to try to inspire turnout. Another way is handing out goodies on Election Day, like fried chicken boxes, or influencing the absentee ballots of nursing home residents and other probable targets. Both parties in elections at every level utilize these approaches.

“For Black voters who, when they vote, usually vote for Democrats, arguing that Republicans are engaged in voter suppression is the main approach to increasing their turnout. It doesn’t require serious support for easing the wealth gap, such as increasing slave-descended African American enrollments in elite higher education institutions, or actually improving K-12 education by giving poor children what well-off children receive in school (concentrated attention), or reducing mass incarceration—or even reparations. As one young man told me recently on the importance of nonviolent protest along with voting, ‘I’ve been voting and voting, and the people I vote for don’t do what they say they will do, and most of the time they don’t even try.’

“Clinton lost in 2016 in part because young people especially are wary about the efficacy of voting. Democrats ought to remember this during this 2020 election cycle.”

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