Pete Buttigieg marches with South Carolina McDonald’s workers as they demonstrate for a $15 an hour wage and the right to form a workers union on February 24, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dear Democratic candidates,
Between now and the Democratic National Convention in July, when the party officially chooses its nominee to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, 47 states will hold primaries and caucuses. Three have already done so. Yet now is perhaps the most crucial moment for Black men. Why? Look to the Palmetto State.
As the first heavily Black state to hold a primary each election year, South Carolina has become a mecca of sorts, a chance for you candidates to prove you can appeal to Black voters and get out the all-important Black vote. And tonight, the seven of you who remain contenders will take the stage in South Carolina to prove yourself to the voters who will decide your fates at Saturday’s primary.
But there’s a problem. You don’t actually care about Black men.
You need us, without question, but there’s still a commonly held perception that Black men don’t vote. We’ve been blamed for loss of national and midterm elections, and assumed to be too apathetic to even participate in our democracy until one of your campaign volunteers drops a poster at our barbershops. (Do they even stay for a cut?)
We want the big, bold campaign promises. We want to be seen smiling in your campaign television ads, without being used as a symbol of poverty or overcoming hardship. We want policy proposals that speak to our whole selves.
Have you ever stopped to ask why voter turnout is low among Black men? It’s because we’ve never been made to feel like we matter in this country — and that’s especially evident when a presidential election cycle comes around, and the only time candidates mention us is in the context of police and prison reform. On the debate stage and at campaign stops, it’s as if we don’t exist outside a narrative of criminality.
So, candidates, listen up.
We want to know that you’re fighting for our votes, too. We want the big, bold campaign promises. We want to be seen smiling in your campaign television ads, without being used as a symbol of poverty or overcoming hardship. We want you to recognize that we exist outside of churches, barbershops, and HBCUs — and for you to come talk to us. We want policy proposals that speak to our whole selves: Education, jobs, and climate change matter to us.
We are the swing voters you’ve always ignored, and it’s time for that to change. Here’s how you can address our concerns.
(To issue a disclaimer that I hope should be obvious: Advocating for Black men does not come at the expense of other demographics, and bringing Black men to the forefront of political discussions by no means diminishes any other group’s concerns and/or challenges within our democracy.)
A quality education is important. How you see Black boys in K-12 education is critical. We need you to address the trauma-based environments of classrooms for Black boys, due to troubling discipline statistics. A federal survey on school discipline found that Black students account for 18% of all preschoolers, but 48% of all preschool out-of-school suspensions.
Even more troubling: A Government Accountability Office report found that Black students in K-12 schools are far more likely to be disciplined than their counterparts of other races. Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than White boys, and twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement than White students.
This pattern persists no matter the school’s poverty level or what type of public school it is. In other words, the school-to-prison pipeline is real — and dismantling it is of utmost importance.
Further, Black men lag far behind Black women, and both White men and women, in college enrollment. Department of Education figures show that Black women account for 63.6% of all African American enrollments, and the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that Black women currently earn about two-thirds of all African American bachelor’s degree awards, 70% of all master’s degrees, and more than 60% of all doctorates.
A report by the Brookings Institute found there has been a significant increase in rates of four-year college completion among Black Americans, especially women. But rates among Whites have increased just as rapidly, again especially among women. In 2015, 45% of White women ages 25 to 35 had completed four years of college, and 36% of White men — while just 25% and 17% of Black women and men, respectively, had. This disparity is a direct result of our K-12 experience, and we need you to understand those structural factors.
Education and employment are inextricably linked. White boys are three times more likely than Black boys to be reading proficiently in fourth grade — exactly the time when research shows that those who haven’t reached reading proficiency are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
This education gap leads to low high school graduation rates. A study from the Dropout Prevention Organization included data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showing that in 2012, 7% of all 16- to 24-year-olds in the United States had not earned a high school diploma or equivalency credential and were not currently enrolled in school. For Black males in that age group that same year, the rate (called the status dropout rate) was nearly 11%. (The rate for Black females — and all other female ethnicities — was significantly lower).
More alarming is the data from research three Princeton sociologists conducted examining the barriers to employment facing young Black men compared to White men: While 54% of young White male high school dropouts had jobs in 2014, only 25% of their Black counterparts were employed. That same year, 29% of Black male high school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 34 were institutionalized. The correlation is clear: Education, or lack thereof, can determine the arc of our lives, whether leading to employment or incarceration.
The facts aren’t new, and they’re as concerning as they ever were: One of every three men entering prison is Black, and we are six times more likely to see the inside of the penal system than our White male counterparts. Even though people of color make up 37% of the U.S population, we are 67% of the prison population.
These disparities don’t happen in a vacuum. Recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reconfirms that sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequality contribute to racial imbalance at every level of the criminal justice system. There’s an infamous saying that every Black person can recite on spot: “African Americans are more likely than White Americans to be arrested; once arrested, we are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, we are more likely to face harsher sentences.” What are your plans to address this?
Given all this, you can excuse Black men for not leaping out of bed on Election Day to go get their “I voted” sticker. For most, it’s akin to doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result — and that, as we all know, is insane.
But it’s not too late. Tonight, on the debate stage in South Carolina, you can actually address these issues. Have your social media team at the ready to tweet out supplemental information. Use tonight’s debate as a launchpad for a nuanced discussion letting us know that Black men not only matter to you, but that you understand the underlying issues, and are willing to fix them with bold ideas.
You’ve already seen this work with Black women, now considered the backbone of the Democratic party. They are heavily courted, made to feel seen. Black women’s health and health advocacy is finally being discussed on debate stages; childcare policies are being introduced to make sure that caretakers, mostly Black and Brown women, enjoy job certainty; campaign strategies are targeting Black women, and funds are being allocated to fuel those strategies. Black women are constantly being reminded that their voice matters in this election — as it should, period.
Use this proof of concept to begin the fight for the Black male vote. And consider what we want.
We want home ownership; we want to create generational wealth. We want to become doctors, lawyers, to sit in the C-suite; we want the power of the Black dollar to be respected. We want better access to capital and to federal contracts; we want to reimagine Black Wall Street. Black men enjoy being on the open road as truck drivers, but with the future of work, we are open to learning a new trade.
Black men care about climate change too — we just need you to call it “environmental justice,” so we can stop bringing our inhalers to schools, football games, and track meets due to upper respiratory complications caused by lack of clean air in our neighborhoods. We want to serve on corporate boards, but we’re concerned by statements like the one David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, made at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland recently: “Starting on July 1 in the U.S. and Europe, we’re not going to take a company public unless there’s one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women, and we’re going to move toward 2021 requesting two.” This advancement needs to be saluted, but where does it leave Black men?
So give us your bold ideas, candidates. Let us know you are empathetic to the complexities of the Black man, that you are willing to sit down and listen. That you can be comfortable in the uncomfortable. That you are willing to present policies for equitable outcomes for Black boys in education, for Black men in job creation. That you are willing to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in an effort to create meaningful criminal justice reform. Recognize that Black boys have an entrepreneurial spirit that needs to be supported, with Black men having access to capital.
There’s much more, of course, including the many ways individual candidates have lost our trust: Michael Bloomberg’s racist stop-and frisk-policies; the 1994 crime bill that Joe Biden authored (and Bernie Sanders voted for) that helped supercharge the carceral state; Amy Klobuchar’s wrongful prosecution of a Black Minnestota teen; the police and community tensions under Pete Buttigieg’s mayorship in South Bend, Indiana; Bernie Sanders’ initial discomfort with the idea that Black lives matter.
These all need to be addressed, and they will be — but hearing how we are advancing the conversation on policies reflecting the Black man as a whole is just as important.
America has lots to talk about. Much is at stake; much is to be gained. The swing vote that is needed has been there all along — just activate us. We are the Invisible Man, looking to be invisible no more.