“We love everything black, except for black people.”
This was a profoundly insightful comment made by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and founder of the Black Futures Lab, during a Commonwealth Club discussion of the newly released Black Census Report.
Garza points out that the Democratic Party loves our votes, but may not be responding to our actual needs, in her New York Times op-ed “Dear Candidates: Here Is What Black People Want”: “We long for the same things as everyone else, and yet few campaigns treat us as if our experiences matter.”
During election season, I always cringe when I see candidates eating fried chicken next to a bottle of hot sauce in Harlem or taking staged photos with black leaders. These shallow symbolic gestures are not a substitute for meaningful engagement with black voters. And candidates should know that we see right through them.
Candidates and their campaigns are comfortable talking at black people, but few want to talk to us. This limits our ability to influence their decisions and policies. And it’s a bad strategy at a time when black people, black women in particular, form the base of the Democratic Party, are its most loyal voters and mobilize other people to go to the polls.
That’s why, in 2018, I started the Black Census Project, the results of which we are releasing on Tuesday. More than 31,000 black people from all 50 states participated in what we believe is the largest independent survey of black people ever conducted in the United States.
Says Garza, “The Black Census was an attempt to try and capture the experiences of people who are often erased, or made invisible from larger society while also valorized in a weird way, because we love black culture … we love everything black, except for black people.”
The issues facing black communities are often complicated, nuanced and heavily weighted by centuries of historical injustice. Black Futures Lab, founded by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, works to make black people powerful in politics by transforming black communities into constituencies that build power in cities and states.The Black Futures Lab recently completed the largest survey of black people since Reconstruction, with nearly 40,000 respondents from diverse communities across the nation. The survey included questions regarding many defining characteristics, including gender, sexuality, age and other categories, and it dug into several key issues rooted in inequality and to understand better what black communities desire for their futures. Join Garza and other cultural leaders, scholars and experts for a conversation about the inaugural data results and how to use this data to create solutions with lasting impact.
The two other program participants at the Commonwealth Club were Cathy J. Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics and Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, and Ibram X. Kendi, professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, and the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
From my perspective as a researcher, I was interested in the methodology, and in who was surveyed:
… the Black Census includes populations that are usually not represented or are underrepresented in traditional surveys, such as homeless people, incarcerated people, LGBTQ people, Black Republicans and conservatives, Black immigrants, and mixed-raced people with a Black parent, among others. The Black Census is not a traditional probabilistic survey sample, which often fails to fully represent populations whose experiences are important to understanding the complexity of Black life. Instead, the Black Census utilized unique survey collection methods that drew on robust online networks and sent local organizers into Black businesses, churches, libraries, barbershops and other community gathering places from North Carolina to Nevada, providing a rare and important opportunity to hear and learn from voices too often at the margins of America’s political debate.
This is the first in a series of reports on the Black Census, focusing on the most pressing economic and criminal justice issues among Black Census respondents, with a spotlight on how respondents are engaged in the electoral process.
The report reveals that many Black Census respondents are highly engaged in elections: Not only did more than 73 percent report voting in 2016, but 40 percent also report some other form of electoral activity, such as engaging as donors, volunteers, or canvassers. Yet despite the notable level of participation, most respondents believe that the Black community is not highly valued in return: 52 percent of Black Census respondents say that politicians do not care about Black people, and an additional 35 percent assert that politicians only care a little.
We are not all the same, and though a majority of us vote for Democrats, ofttimes we are spoken at and about, as if we are monolithic. Many politicians show up when there is an election and we are needed, but don’t follow through post-voting.
Too many national polls and surveys I’ve seen over the years have a sample size of between 500 and 1,500—and the percentage of black folks as a subset is about 13%. Often there is only a grab bag subgroup, “POC,” which, from my qualitative perspective, is meaningless.
30,000+ as a sample comprised of a wide cross-section of Black Americans is a major step forward.
Many of us use data collected by excellent research groups such as Pew. For example, this recent release:
Out of their total sample of 6,637, 1,518 respondents were black.
I’ve been following the sparse news coverage of the report, and was glad to see this Teen Vogue piece. We need to spend more time engaging our future voters.
Alicia Garza Talks 2020, Young Black Voters, and the Black Census Project
TV: You mentioned in your New York Times op-ed that “communities of color are getting bigger and younger,” using it to critique Democratic electoral strategy. What do you think Democrats can learn from your first report, especially about young people of color?
AG: Democrats are going to need a new approach when it comes to reaching young Black people and young people of color. Younger voters tend to be more progressive than their older counterparts and want real solutions to the challenges we are facing.
Younger voters are also very aware of the ways in which race and gender and other systemic barriers impact their lives, and they want the people who seek their vote to understand the real barriers impacting their lives.
What I think Democrats can learn from this report is that to engage Black communities authentically, you have to engage us in our complexity.
TV: For some, the 2018 midterms are a lesson in the power of identity politics given how women and women of color won. What do you think is instructive about them and does that dovetail with this project?
AG: Candidates and their campaigns need to understand that using the term "identity politics" pejoratively will get you nowhere with Black voters. Identity politics has been demonized by white liberals and conservatives alike. To tell Black voters to look beyond identity politics is silly because that's telling that voter that you are ignoring how their lives are being shaped through no fault of their own by racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and more.
The people who don't like to focus on identity politics are usually the people who benefit from shutting it down. Women, women of color, Black women — we are going to vote for what's best for us and the people we love, and we will get behind the person who seems like they understand what it's like for us.
I applaud this first of a series of reports.
What I would like to see is a response from our candidates, and from other people engaged in the Democratic Party at the state and local levels.
You can help make that happen.