How a racist Democratic Party became the party of choice for most black people in the US

November 21, 2019 at 11:30 am | History

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Staff Writer

November 21, 2019 at 11:30 am | History

For about two generations, black people have found in the Democrats, an imperfect but a more trustworthy ally than Republicans. Photo Credit: Hub.jhu.edu

With stats from the midterm election in 2018, the venerable Pew Research Organisation crystallized for us what it means to be a black voter in the United States.

“Blacks voted overwhelmingly (90%) for the Democratic candidate, including comparable shares of black men (88%) and black women (92%),” the Pew report says.

This was not a one-off. Long before Barack Obama would ascend to the presidency with historic African-American voter support, black people have favored the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.

Perhaps, this much is common knowledge. However, the social and political antecedents that have shaped the ideologies and voting choices of black people in the US are not much known.

Earlier this year, rapper Kanye West said the Democrats have brainwashed black people into constantly voting blue. One can say West was met with the right amounts of condemnation but they also contained little historical weight to sink West’s theory.

Both of the two major political parties in this de facto bi-partisan democracy have found themselves entangled in consequences, via chance and choice.

Political parties by definition, are interest-seeking groups that negotiate power relations for the purpose of seeing through those things that are important to them.

The bond that brings people of different families and towns together are a set of aspirations catered to under the umbrella of the party.

If you are a man or woman in a country where your choices are most realistically between two parties, you stick to either of them that is aligned with your hopes.

Democrats have not always represented the hopes of black people. In fairness, the party has been set against black people longer than it has been in support of them.

Before its founding in 1828, the Democratic Party was in a unit called the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson, a founder of the Democratic-Republicans, wanted his faction to oppose the ideology of centralising powers in the hands of the federal government.

Here, we notice the history of political philosophies as formed by responses to immediate concerns. This schema guides the construction of worldviews, and America, more than many other places, has proven as good grounds for experimentation.

The concern in the early years of America’s independence was how to guard against overbearing power and tyranny.

What became the Democratic Party in 1828 was a faction within the Democratic-Republicans which was not pleased by a constitutional technicality that passed the presidency from Andrew Jackson to John Quincy Adams.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the American concern was what to do with the black African slave.

Democrats in the northern states hoped to end slavery and argued that slavery could not be forced on every state if the people of those states were not in favor. But Southern Democrats, overwhelmingly moneyed men who owned plantation slaves, could not support the end of slavery and wanted it everywhere.

The split among Democrats allowed Abraham Lincoln, a man leading a small and young party called the Republicans to win the presidential elections of 1860.

The Republicans found affinity with the northern Democrats over their skepticism of the morality of slavery. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, much of the country’s north and northeastern states fought together under the Union flag.

The American Civil War broke out over southern states attempting to leave the United States chiefly because the federal government was looking to outlaw slavery. Together, the southerners were the Confederates in the war.

After the Union won the war in 1865, America saw what is called the Reconstruction Era. As efforts were made to patch up a country that was physically and spiritually torn apart, southerners insisted that black people could not be treated equally as whites.

By the 1880s, southern politicians had instituted laws that would be known as the Jim Crow laws. These were legislative instruments made for the purposes of maintaining the freedom of black people, yet guaranteeing them little to none of their social and political rights.

This was the beginning of the 20th century and the Democratic Party was still split on the issue of the humanity and rights of black people. Comparably, Republicans were progressive on that issue.

While Democrats argued for a smaller federal government with states retaining significant control over their affairs, Republicans insisted that just as the federal government had led a war against slavery, it is in similar vein to use federal authority to embark on social and political reforms.

Writing for the Houston Chronicle, James Haught suggests it is fair to say the Republicans were the liberal party of the time and Democrats, conservative.

But electoral realities began to set in by the late 1920s and Democrats, especially in the north, began sounding like Republicans.

They started asking for bigger government powers to solve the more pressing issues such as infrastructure and poverty. The plight of black people was not near the top of the list because the northern Democrats did not want to anger their southern colleagues.

History scholar Eric Rauchway makes the point that Democrats wanted to appeal to the states in the west that were underdeveloped. Republicans, whose maxim had hitherto been exactly what the Democrats had started to say, did not immediately choose the opposite.

It was not until the third presidential term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, that Republicans began to adopt their now known “small government and state rights” stance.

Roosevelt, a champion of the American working class who actually came from an aristocratic family, had been so successful as president that Republicans had to vary their message. Indeed, Roosevelt’s success is the reason the American constitution now has a term limit for presidents.

But Roosevelt was not particularly invested in the issues of black civil rights for fear of cutting off southern Democrats. However, black people had already noticed the results of Roosevelt’s welfare programs in their lives and were drawn to him and his party.

Black people were America’s poorest in the 1930s and 40s and Roosevelt’s investments paid off the most for them. When another Democrat president, Harry S. Truman supported a pro-civil rights legislation in 1948, the popular black support for the party we know now began to concretize.

Southern Democrats were happy with Roosevelt’s economic gains but were not so pleased about Truman’s support for black people. Republicans, who had supported the cause of black people since Lincoln, saw opportunity in the division of the Democratic Party.

As political marketing goes, Republicans became less and less in support of civil rights so as to identify with the huge bloc of southern Democratic voters who were prepared to leave their party.

By 1965, the writing was on the wall and the ink was near-indelible. Democrat President Lyndon Johnson had supported and signed two civil rights legislation into law and there was no turning back for southerners.

Johnson is believed to have told close aide Bill Moyers in 1965, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Today, America’s southern states are overwhelmingly Republican supporting and are most resistant to policies in pursuant to the civil rights of racial minorities.

But those who claim southern support for Republicans has nothing to do with race say the support only seems prudent because Republicans are more supportive of the Christianity of southerners.

But if that assertion were true, black Christians in the south should be supportive of the Republican Party too but that is not the case. Blacks living in the south are also more likely to vote Democrat.

This is what we know: a series of chopping and changing over 200 years has yielded the present. Black people are making their bets with an imperfect Democratic Party that sometimes takes them for granted.

But the alternative has not proven to be trustworthy for many black people for two generations.

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