Taken at protest in downtown DC in 2014.

Change You Can Believe In

How the Democratic Party Should Re-Introduce Itself to the Black Community

As the presidential primaries head to the South, now the focus has turned to the Black vote. Both Democratic candidates are meeting with Civil Rights leaders and elected officials for help in securing this demographic’s support at the polls. Surrogates for both Democratic candidates are on various news shows making the argument for why the Black community should support their respective candidates. However, Houston, we still have a problem. This is not how most Black people decide who they will vote for to become their elected officials.

As pointed out by the Atlantic’s Theodore R. Johnson in his latest article, yes, African Americans turned out for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012, but now, the Black vote is charting a new course. As the Black community charts this new course, there are some foundational tools the Democratic Party should consistently start using, not only to show an interest in significant issues that plague the Black community, but more importantly, use these tools to take action.

I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, attended majority Black middle and high schools and spent a lot of time with two girls who became my best friends mainly because our parents were friends. So, yes, I grew up in a place “where everybody knows your name.” Growing up, we spent most of our time doing things that everyone else did — going to Sunday School and attending at least two church services every Sunday, participating in the same after-school activities, and going to the beauty shop with Mom or barbershop with Dad on Saturday mornings. These places were where we got our news and information.

Then-Senator Obama knew that. Why? He was a community organizer in Chicago. He learned as a community organizer that the way the Black community gathers its information is from each other. So, the best way for the Black community to get to know who you are and what you are about is to meet them where they are, learn about them and let them get to know you at their own pace.

Here is the problem. The Black community is “sick and tired” of many things as Johnson points out in his piece, but also, it is tired of only being recognized as important when someone needs something from it. This is why there has been a shift in the community’s stance on how it views the work of elected officials and civil rights organizations. This is the reason why the Black vote is not guaranteed to the Democrats.

Since the re-election of President Obama, Democratic elected officials have been making promises to make changes. During this same time, America’s “do nothing” Congress has continued to consistently refused to work until there is another president in office, preferably a Republican one. So Black Generation Xers and millennials have decided to change the game and take action in the streets instead of waiting on those changes to come. And with the support of those who lived through and are products of the Civil Rights movement, this new movement is making strides. This may not be what the Democratic Party wants to hear, but it brought it upon itself because it failed to learn the telling lessons of both the 2012 presidential campaign and the 2014 congressional campaigns.

In 2012, 66% of Blacks voted in November’s general election and for the first time more than whites. Why? If asked, the overwhelming response from African Americans would have been, “to re-elect President Obama.” As a Field Organizer in Alexandria,VA for the Obama 2012 campaign, many Black people I spoke with said to me, “If President Obama was not running again, I would not vote in this election,” or “I am only voting to re-elect Obama.” So this should have been telling for the 2014 mid-term races.

Well-known Black media commentators such as Roland Martin and Joe Madison “preached” to Democrats running that you can’t wait until the last minute and ask for the Black vote or assume the Black community will just show up for you during the 2014 races. However, the DCCC carried on with business as usual and incurred major losses on Election Day 2014. Now we embark on another presidential election year, and by all accounts, some lessons still have yet to be learned.

President Obama is not on this ticket, so now, both Democratic candidates are vying for the Black vote. According to media reports, both candidates have or are building impressive ground games all across the South. As get out the vote efforts begin, here are a few questions Democratic campaigns must answer:

  1. Who are you?
  2. How long have you been here?
  3. Who do you know in this community?
  4. Where are you from?
  5. Why should I care about what you have to say?
  6. Why should I believe you are going to do more for my community than President Obama?
  7. How long do you plan on sticking around?

These questions begins the community’s interest in you as a person. Having these conversations at the usual spots — churches, barbershops, beauty salons, and local high school basketball games as well, at college campuses and on social media where millennials are having their own conversations about politics. These answers will provide the Black community the background information needed to get to know the candidate.

The Democratic Party needs an ongoing strategy to communicate with Black voters. It is important to understand meeting the community where it is on specific issues and telling the truth even if it is unpleasant. The current strategies of meetings with the CBC, civil rights leaders and renowned church ministers to rely on them to carry the message is played out. Isn’t it clear the Black community has thrown out its own playbook of relying on its leaders to make changes within the community? The emergence of Black Lives Matter, numerous campus protests by Black students, and the publishing of many written articles and blogs have started conversations to promote action without these leaders.

There is a chance the Black voters that made a difference for President Obama — the ones who tune into Shonda Rhimes’ #TGIT on ABC and Twitter on Thursday nights or watch the NBA on TNT instead of the Democratic debates will stay home during the primary season and even again in the general election. What does the party have to lose by having a specific, unique, aggressive engagement strategy in Black communities and on Black media? Without such a strategy, the party runs a substantially higher risk of losing in November. With the death of Justice Scalia, the stakes are even higher now. Doing the comfortable and familiar while taking the Black vote for granted is no longer a winning strategy.

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