Black Voters Between The Rock and The Hard Place

Recent poll in Virginia reveals a tough choice for Black residents there

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by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport

Black communities often find themselves, politically, between a rock and a hard place. Generally speaking, the broader electorate is always forced into a “lesser of two evils” option scenario during election cycles. But not to the extent that Black voters find themselves. It’s a lot more complex. What may seem obvious at first is not that obvious.

There was some surprise when a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll of Virginia residents found a fairly overwhelming amount of support from Black voters for Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA). When asked if he should resign, nearly 60 percent of Black Virginia residents said “no.” That was something of a stunning revelation to many outside of Virginia or not familiar with the local political and cultural landscape there. It was especially surprising to some when compared against White resident views on Northam and the question of whether or not he should resign …

Policy Prescriptions vs. Personal Deeds

We’ve been having a heated public conversation about how the nation feels with regard to the situation in Virginia. Of course, the calls for Northam’s resignation as a punishment for wearing blackface are resounding. There’s very little equivocating from Black voters, for example, in this recent YouGov/Economist poll

However, that’s not really offering a sharp glimpse into how Virginia residents feel, particularly the most directly aggrieved of those residents. The rest of the nation will automatically assume it knows best on the issue and that, automatically, a majority of Black Virginia residents will decide Northam needs to go.

But, from the Post-Schar poll above, that’s not completely the case. Black Virginians, as most Black communities, are very aware of the history and insult that is blackface. But, they’re also keenly aware of how socially, economically, environmentally and politically vulnerable they are, especially to the whims of policymakers. Forcing Northam to resign may be viewed as a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” decision. Black residents in Virginia may then be asking: If Northam resigns, what exactly is the political alternative? There’s broad awareness from that electorate that should Republicans in the state regain power, historically disenfranchised and distressed Black communities will become a target for fresh rounds of dominant conservative policy making. Hence, there is a fear they will be exposed to almost immediate reversal of any policy progress on a variety of issues.

While Northam is not an ideal purveyor of Black progress in Virginia (he couldn’t even say “slavery” when corrected on it during a CBS News interview with Gayle King), he’s the “frenemie” of sorts that most Black Virginia residents have decided they know better. He can be, politically, forgiven, despite the personal choice he shouldn’t have made over three decades ago … when he knew better. Republicans in total charge of Richmond, however, adds a very high degree of uncertainty and risk that Black Virginia residents have decided they can’t afford to take, particularly given the times. Hence, he’ll have considerable work to do in making amends.

Leveraging Opportunity

It’s a tough choice for the larger Black electorate and community. It generally has minimal agency over its political fate, it is forced to absorb blows from regressive policy changes and destructive economic trends. While there are a significant number of Black elected officials on the local, state and federal level today compared to when the Voting Rights Act was introduced in 1965, there is still great danger to Black communities on those levels. As a result, Black voters always feel as if they are forced into making choices based on “harm reduction” (per Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson) versus substantive policy and agenda information. Choices at the voting booth - or the decision to not participate in elections at all - are based more on emotion for many Black voters.

That said: the decision to keep Northam as Governor should present an enormous political opportunity for Black Virginians. Since he’s been forced into permanent mea culpa, take advantage of the situation. Squeeze as much policy advantage out of Northam as possible. Own him, politically speaking. Use it as a moment to not only make policy demands, but to ensure he fights for those demands and sees them all the way through.