A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a Facebook Live recording of a recent episode of the Columbia radio program OnPoint! With Cynthia Hardy, which featured Cynthia and her panelists discussing President Donald Trump and how his actions should compel black people into political action.
The panel was informative, but it also stuck to basic Democratic Party talking points: increasing grassroots activation, which can increase turnout and, of course, how shitty of a person our president is. As luck would have it, while he couldn’t join the group in studio, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Trav Robertson, called in to give his two cents. (Watch the exchange starting around 28:00.)
I like Trav. And in the few times I interacted with him when I ran for S.C. House, he showed himself to be passionate, knowledgeable, and ambitious — just the kind of person S.C. Democrats need. But halfway into the discussion, he reached into his bag of talking points and pulled out a doozy: the “staggering” number of black voters registered in South Carolina, 923,351 by his count. Except that he said it in the way that everyone says it when they quote these types of stats, that if black people would utilize the power in their numbers, we could dictate who wins political races in South Carolina. On the surface, this seems reasonable, but a deeper look tells a different story.
First thing’s first, the number Trav spoke of is not the number of registered African-American voters in the state, it’s actually the total number of non-white voters, according to current S.C. Election Commission data. Secondly, this idea that ‘The Black Vote’ would automatically go to Democratic candidates is, statistically, not the slam dunk it may have been in decades past. In February, AP-NORC ran a poll that showed that while blacks, like Americans overall, largely do vote for candidates from one party, it doesn’t mean they are particularly aligned with that party. For instance, 59 percent of black voters identify as Democrats, 16 percent describe themselves as independents, and 21 percent answered “none of these.”
Of the 923,351 registered non-white voters in South Carolina, 140,541 of them (15.22 percent) live in Charleston, Dorchester, and Berkeley counties. The tricounty has 348 voting precincts, but only 67 (19.25 percent) of them are majority non-white. So, even on the local level, while 20 percent is definitely enough support to shift ballots in some areas (see: House District 15), the ‘Black Vote’ is not the golden key that it is made out to be. For the most part, South Carolina politics goes in whatever direction white people, regardless of their political affiliation, want it to go.
It’s not just Democrats though. On the rare occasion the GOP decides to speak about black people and our issues, it’s usually coupled with talk of the “inner city.” Trump says it all the time; it has become his go-to way to refer to black people without having to actually say the words. In fact, he recently had a meeting with, according to White House records, “inner city pastors,” all of whom just happen to be black. The problem with conflating “black” with “inner city” is that it’s just plain false. According to Brookings researcher Elizabeth Kneebone, 52 percent of blacks in the nation’s top 100 metro areas live in the suburbs. Regardless of party, it seems that no matter who is talking about black voters in America, they only seem to be able to do so in overly broad, sweeping terms.
I hope to see the day where black people are granted the privilege of a political identity based on more than just the color of our skin.
If we were treated as individuals and not a faceless voting block, maybe the South Carolina Democratic Party would get the increased participation they’re looking for. Seeing as that probably won’t happen, instead, they should redirect all that energy into more promising endeavors. Instead of using it to implore black people to vote (Democratic), take that energy and put it toward speaking to other white people about making sensible voting decisions.
After all, every single one of the six S.C. counties that swung from Democratic to Republican in 2016 are majority white. And even though Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote, all nine of South Carolina’s electoral votes went to Trump. Seems like there may more at play than simply getting black people to vote. But what do I know, I couldn’t win my race either.
KJ Kearney is a Charleston County School District teaching assistant and the founder of Charleston Sticks Together.