Photo by Jessica Felicio

Learning the Black Electorate

Black life in America has been so fraught with trauma that sustained academic research has lagged substantially. Broad attempts to respond to the original sin of slavery and its successors of de jure and de facto second-class citizenship of Africans in this country consume most of the energy for philanthropy and academic investment. Securing right to vote is the central focus of many, leaving voter idioms of the Black electorate to a select few political consultants.

Standard public opinion research polls often fall victim to a similar lack of focus. Many prominent national and state-based annual polls exclude African Americans from their sample size, do not employ African American researchers, and lack culturally competent partners to inform focus groups and polling on major public policy issues. The greatest attention paid to the Black electorate comes in contested primaries at the presidential level.

The few Black political consultants who are in decision-making roles must contend with historically malnourished data sets and polling firms ill-experienced with researching Black voters.

Consumer data has not lagged as much as public opinion research. Papa Johns, Fox Television (Empire), and Walt Disney (Black Panther) are just of few of the major consumer facing institutions that remind us of the profit centers of Black dollars. Political campaigns are limited in their ability to engage at the level of targeting seen in the private sector. Surprisingly, government also often ignores or is inattentive to resident, citizen, and consumer perspectives. Academic institutions and non-governmental organizations have longed filled the void where private and governmental actors were inadequately invested.

Large scale Black problems produced leaders with strong instincts to speak to the great ills suffered by Africans in America. Instinct has guided discussions because there was little data other than raw educational, economic, health, housing, incarceration, and welfare numbers. While the aggregate information is important for meta data analysis, the decisions that impact each of those realities and more are driven by voter behaviors. White and Latino data is strong in the public opinion research space. However, the vital contributions and perspectives of the African American electorate are largely non-existent.

In California, no public opinion research organization regularly polled the statewide Black electorate until 2016. One the world’s largest economies, nearly two million residents of African descent, and the strength of diverse communities contributing to robust economic growth were not enough to secure a place for African Americans in public polling. Media organizations publish stories all year long about surveys to minimize or exclude African American participation.

African Americans are thought of from a meta-data service recipient, need-based perspective. Public opinion research focuses on registered and eligible voters and gives voice to their specific concerns. The purpose is to better understand what motivates people to take leadership of their own future. Only when communities believe their own voice is heard and respected, rather than simply profited from, can full liberation be realized in democracy.

It is past time to engage the African American electorate in a respectful dialogue about its goals for a better and more livable California. We’ve had enough guessing. It is time for research. There are many who will benefit greatly from sitting to learn the Black electorate all over again. Ultimately, society as a whole will better for it.