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To Win Black Voters, Hillary Clinton Can't Rely Upon Hope and Change

Thomas Shea/Getty Images

When she made her grand appeal for universal voter registration last Thursday in Texas, Hillary Clinton had just received an award named in honor of the late Barbara Jordan, the famed civil rights leader and the first black woman from the South ever elected to the House of Representatives. According to the dean of the historically black Texas Southern University law school that gave the Democratic presidential candidate the Barbara Jordan Public-Private Leadership Award, “Awarding the first Medallion that bears Barbara Jordan’s name to Hillary Clinton is fitting because this award is geared towards recognizing the life time contributions that an American woman has made to our national public life.” The university’s president added that “the award, like Barbara Jordan, focuses not on status, but measurable accomplishments on the national and even international stages.”

In her remarks, Clinton promised more accomplishments (though without specific steps to achieve them) that would directly benefit black voters. Noting that there is “a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people,” Clinton proposed automatic registration for every U.S. citizen at the age of 18, unless they choose to opt out. “We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every road-block anyone can imagine,” she said.

Symbolism, rhetoric, and promises are key to any presidential contender, but seen through the lens of the media, we have given them an outsized weight when discussing black voters. Our support for President Obama in the past two elections is often depicted as sycophantic, as if we merely saw his melanin and pulled the lever, his policy positions utterly inconsequential to our choice. Sure, there were folks who voted for Obama just because he’s black, or for the sake of history. But it’s a mistake to brand black voters this way because it paints them as uncritical participants in our democracy who are not engaged in arguably the most critical issues that afflict this country, particularly since our communities bear the brunt of the failures of political leadership. It’s a characterization that has led many a Republican leader and pundit to be taken seriously when they opine that black voters are slavishly devoted to a Democratic Party that, they say, offers less than a conservative agenda that has been provably regressive for black Americans.

Such a framing doesn’t allow for a nuanced assessment of what many feel are the Obama presidency’s myriad failures and disappointments with respect to issues that most directly influence black Americans, namely in how he has addressed (or skated by) discussions about racial justice and black death, as well as more conventional political cornerstone issues such as neighborhood safety, education, and employment. Nor does it provide proper space to examine his many successes in what I believe will be later judged as a thoroughly accomplished presidency.

Many on the right seek to capitalize instead on a perceived weakness that doesn’t seek to woo black voters so much as demonize them, insulting an electorate as “takers” and welfare junkies hooked on the gifts of the state who obsess about the lack of an immediate quid pro quo from the man they put into the White House. One might think they were talking about a rookie pro athlete having to fend off his gold-digging family members angling for the scraps of his newfound fortune rather than a president.

Jessica Byrd, who works with candidates of color and organizations representing communities of color as a principal of the Washington-based consulting firm Three Point Strategies, thinks that the discussion about black choices in 2016 need to be much more nuanced. “Black voters are constantly being presented with a series of false choices and leading questions,” said Byrd, a former Manager of State Strategies at EMILY's List. “If you don't have a black guy on the ticket, will you sit out? If you think that that last eight years weren't transformative, wasn't it because of Obama's false promises? I mean, is it just me or does current policy reflect more than just the current president? Our conversations with black voters must deepen and lengthen.”

It isn’t just her. I felt the need for that deepening and lengthening when I read a Washington Post article published Tuesday night which quotes several voters who are disillusioned with Obama and, as the article posits, are having a more difficult time buying into Clinton’s candidacy. The article frames the presidential choice for black voters as one entirely encompassed by black disappointment, and outlines how that could jeopardize Clinton’s appeal to them in 2016. One young grocery clerk is quoted wondering where her raise is; another man becomes so uncomfortable during the discussion of Obama’s failings that he removes his “Obama ‘08” t-shirt right there during the group interview. Set within the context of Jacksonville, Florida, where a black mayor, Alvin Brown, elected in 2011 has not succeeded in diminishing the abundant crime and malaise in black areas of the city, the article paints a dire picture for a white woman who cannot relate as intimately as Obama once did to such communities. “She is focusing on exactly the right issues,” said a Baptist reverend. “But here in Jacksonville, the issues won’t be enough.”

To its credit, the article does include a comment from a voter who seems to understand how the government officials not named Barack Obama have affected policy during his two terms in the White House. There’s also discussion in the report surrounding whether Clinton can prove that she’s “down” with black communities, which seems like a rather gaseous way to judge a candidate for president. And there’s a recognition of the “personal duty” black voters felt to elect Obama, something that Clinton will likely lack, no matter how many African American advisors and volunteers she sends into neighborhoods to organize and knock on doors.

Byrd, however, thinks this shouldn’t be thought of as impossible for a white candidate like Clinton. “We talk a lot about the ‘revolutionary’ Obama organizing model. Barack Obama engaged millions of people in a conversation about what is possible in their country,” she said. “He used organizers to listen and learn from communities and then turn them out to vote. I was one of those organizers, and I thought it was amazing, but not at all revolutionary.”

Political consultant Angelique Roché also told me that she doesn’t believe it’s out of reach for the Democratic frontrunner. “Clinton will have to tackle the fact that people of color do not see their own reflection in her,” said Roché, also a board member at Yale’s Women’s Campaign School. “What Clinton has done is establish a ‘people’s campaign.’ She has hired a number of people of color in leadership positions and created a atmosphere of inclusion, separating her candidacy from the rest of the pack and putting her campaign light years ahead of her Republican counterparts in connecting with these voters.”

But how much will she ingratiate herself with black voters by noting that she’s lesser than Republican evils, so to speak, and with representational leadership in her campaign? Many black voters will still remember certain questionable barbs and innuendos from her 2008 campaign against the president. The fact that Clinton has begun her campaign not with just glad-handing black communities but offering specific advocacy and ideas concerning issues that affect them most directly is encouraging. Clinton has come out strong for unionization, advocated the expansion of Obama immigration policies, and urged serious criminal justice reforms. I’m happy that, unlike Rand Paul on the Republican side, she isn’t dancing around issues of systemic discrimination and seeking to blame other bogeymen, like taxes, that have not nearly as much impact upon their realities.

What isn’t as encouraging, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus and Vox’s Jonathan Allen both point out today, is the lack of details on how she plans to accomplish these goals amid what will likely be strong opposition in at least one house of Congress. The universal voter registration plan is currently in one state, Oregon; Clinton offered no details as to how she’d take it national. These details will be essential, because I suspect that black voters, disillusioned or not, are past the representational phase of presidential politics; there’s no chance “hope and change” can work today. So she’ll have to make a case, with a plan. (If we insist upon one from our activists and organizers fighting for black liberation in the streets of America, we should expect one from a potential president.)

“Just like every other constituency, black folks are complex. We live at the intersections of identities. Our issues change over time, just like our voting habits,” Byrd told me. “Black voters, overwhelmingly carried by black women, chose Barack Obama both times because he was the best person to lead on the issues that reflect our lives the most. In 2016, after engaging with the candidates meaningfully over the course of the election season, we will make that choice again.”

The obvious case for Clinton to make to black voters is that she’s the best (and possibly only) realistic option that they have. There is no chance I’d stay home out of protest and withhold my vote in any election, so I’d be lying if I said to you now that I’m probably not going to eventually end up voting for her. Perhaps that’s what she is counting upon, knowing that inspiration is no longer necessary or even useful to distinguish herself as the sole choice versus whoever emerges from the unqualified muck of the GOP primary battle. Yes, that would be cynical. It’s clear, at least from events like her Texas Southern speech that she doesn’t plan to ignore the black vote and assume it’s in her pocket. Even Obama didn’t do that.

“Even in a time of high voter turnout, the onus will be on the candidate to engage in meaningful dialogue with the communities they are interested in serving,” Byrd said of black voters. “So, let's talk. There are a lot of us, and we have so much to say.”

There are a lot of black folks out here like those interviewees in Jacksonville, those with faded Shepard Fairey posters in their living rooms and weathered talismans of an idealized presidency. They, while still viewing the current Obama presidency as a symbolic triumph, feel somehow like they fell for the okey-doke the last two times around. And no one likes feeling like a sucker. Those are the voters who need to know that Clinton not only understands the issues affecting and afflicting their lives, but reaches deeper to offer them realistic, achievable goals from her desired perch atop the executive branch. That would be more impressive than, say, merely leaning to further to the left rhetorically than Obama did during his campaigns.

Given how the only sliver of promise for a positive direction amongst this field of candidates lies with the Democratic slate, I’d love to be able to present a strong argument to black voters for her candidacy. But she has to make that case herself first.