Updated: Nov 9, 2018
It's fair a question. It's one I've been asked many times over the span of my voting life. I'd imagine many other black people with Conservative white friends have been asked this question as well. The question itself hints that our voting primarily for Democratic candidates is somehow counterproductive. Perhaps even a betrayal. This thinking is not without historical merit.
After all, wasn't it the anti-slavery sentiments of the Republican Party that, under President Abraham Lincoln, led to the Civil War which freed the slaves? The Republicans also conceived of and formed the Freedman's Savings Bank of 1865, which successfully served the agricultural and business financial needs of the formerly enslaved African Americans. It is because of the Republican Party that we have the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, The Freedman's Bureau of 1865, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Voting Rights in 1870, and more. What were the Democrats doing? Plenty. They opposed all of these provisions, and fought them incessantly. Primarily, legislatively at first, but they also did not hesitate to use more lethal means of resistance. With the formation of their "Ku Klux Klan", the Southern citizens of the recently preserved Union saw the murders of outspoken Freedmen (Blacks), Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Catholics and Jews. Moving forward in time, one could scarcely if ever find a civic-minded, politically active African American who was not a registered Republican. There was simply too much that we held in common. So with this significant history of so much support and shared sacrifice from the Republicans, the question today, "Why do Blacks primarily vote Democratic?" seems reasonable. Even logical.
To get to the answer, we'll have to very briefly look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when there were still "Whites Only" accommodations in the South. The Act prohibited discrimination based on race color, religion, gender, or national origin. It guaranteed equal voter requirements, and called for the integration of public schools, workplaces, and public accommodations (because Americans actually needed a law to tell them those things). Naturally, most Senatorial Republicans supported it, while most Southern Democrats opposed it. With the signing of the Act into law by their Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, the rank and file, racist Democrats (and Republicans), particularly in the South, felt betrayed. Their way of life was more than just threatened, it was inevitably becoming extinct. In large numbers, they began looking for another party to join. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act enjoyed support from both parties, it was opposed by several notable Republicans on the basis of "states rights". This simple phrase sparked an ideology that opened the door to a possible party polarity shift... But wait, there's more.
Within 5 years or so, the shift gained serious footing, and within 25 years the South had become the home base of the Republican Party. Many Southerners had neither lost their memory nor their feelings about racial segregation, and they had become keenly aware of the political infrastructure necessary to maintain it. Some political scientists took note of this awareness. Enter, Republican Strategist, Lee Atwater. In 1981, Atwater, Ronald Reagan's Political Consultant, explained his now legendary strategy to political scientist Alexander Lamis:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, [it] backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, "forced busing", "states’ rights", and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about "cutting taxes", and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Was this some weird, racist sounding, one-off by Lamis? Hardly. Consider this: Under Lamis' advisement, Ronald Reagan had previously announced his candidacy for president and kicked off his campaign from none other than Philadelphia, MS. At the Nebosha County Fair. This county had strong ties to the KKK. It's literally the location where Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner had been murdered and buried by Klansmen only 15 years prior. Did Reagan know this? He should have. Others certainly did. Politicians avoided that county like the plague out of concerns that they might seem sympathetic to the local, still White Supremacists factions. Furthermore, Ronald Reagan reverberated the dog whistle of the Klansmen in his announcement speech, "I'm for state's rights."
In 1988, during the HW Bush vs Dukakis presidential campaign, the GOP ran a commercial. A video featuring Willie Horton. He was a black man who had committed heinous street crimes, including the rape of a white woman and the murder of her boyfriend. According to the video, Dukakis supported letting Horton out on weekend passes. Horton's darkened photo was used in the ad (lest anybody not notice his racial features?). Now, unless you're black, this may seem somewhat benign. Facts are facts, right? But we African American men know all too well that the image of the scary black man taking sexual advantage of the vulnerable white woman is a tried and true mantra of - you guessed it - White Nationalists. This image has stoked fear since the release of the silent film, Birth Of A Nation, in 1915. It's one of the reasons our lynchings almost always included castration. Well, that and envy, but I digress. Horton's image and the narrative that Dukakis was for his weekend pass was a signal from the GOP that he would be too soft on crime. Whenever the GOP mentions being "tough on crime", they usually point to black and brown people as the criminals.
Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy adopted a Bangladeshi daughter and named her Bridgette. During the 2000 Republican Primary, when it looked as if GW Bush might lose to his rival John McCain in South Carolina (the home state of Lee Atwater), it is widely believed (but unproven) that Bush's campaign manager, Karl Rove chose the nuclear option. An as yet unidentified person or persons began one of the worst smear campaigns in politics. Among other smears, it was "reported" that Bridgette was actually John McCain's illegitimate child from an affair with a black woman. John and Cindy hadn't publicly touted their largess to adopt a foreign child, so the public was largely unaware of that fact. You see, for white men only, "race mixing" was fine in the antebellum South, but after the Civil War and emancipation, it became far less acceptable. For a white man to actually raise the mixed child in his own home? To a large segment of Southern voters, this was unforgivable. McCain's troubles were further exacerbated when evangelicals in South Carolina, led by Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, rallied against John (and Cindy) McCain. He lost in South Carolina, 42% to Bush's 53%. Karl Rove was later noted as being, "One of the greatest political minds of our time".
Please note that these few examples are not the actions of rogue individuals. Rather, they are the strategies of a political party, designed to gain or maintain power at the expense of a particular people. Primarily, black people. Now, I could go on. I could give many more examples of insensitive racial comments, the dog whistles, and even the fog horns by Republican politicians. Comments their fellow Republican politicians and constituents didn't mind, even a little bit. I could talk about how, after the Supreme Court ruling gave states a freer hand in setting their voting regulations, there have been several state court rulings against the GOP for voter obstruction based on race. I could talk about the White Nationalists/Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, KKK, Arian Nation, etc. that currently openly support the Republican Party while completely shunning the Democratic Party. And that's just the racial stuff. The late novelist and social critic, James Baldwin once said, "Racial segregation in the South is dead. What remains to be seen is how long and expensive it's funeral will be." To me, it appears the Republican Party has chosen to be its slow walking poll bearers.
So, the answer to the question, "Why do blacks primarily vote Democratic?" is really not that obscure at all. There aren't any more Abraham Lincoln Republicans. Frankly, many of them don't much care for Lincoln, in retrospect. A better question might be, "Given the words and deeds of the Republican Party over the past 40 years, how do they have any African American support at all?" Because when you look at the proximity in time relative to today, the hard work and sacrifices of the Republican Party on behalf of African Americans was much more remote, compared to their very recent efforts to either foil, insult, or scapegoat us.