Once upon a time, black American voters were the quintessential pragmatists, casting their ballots for the candidate who seemed — if not more likely to support their interests — least likely to do them harm. You can track voting records over generations and find that pattern.
Of course, for much of the history of this country, there aren’t many votes to track. Library shelves are laden with books full of tales of the bravery and bloodshed it took for us to win the ballot.
When we did get the vote, our forefathers and foremothers exercised it with a pride suffused with practicality. Black voters sided largely with the Republican Party — back then it was still the party of Lincoln — until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal began to dislodge them. During his presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy won the fealty of black voters by calling Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver to request the release of the unjustly imprisoned Martin Luther King Jr. Black Americans became reliable Democratic voters with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who pushed landmark civil rights legislation through Congress.
These days, though, many black voters seem to have lost that sense of perspective, that sense of casting a vote for the candidate least likely to do them harm. Like so many other Americans, they seek the perfect politician — the man or woman who promises to bridge every gap, solve every problem, vanquish every foe. They seek the candidate who has never done or said anything to offend their sensibilities.
That’s dangerous. President Donald J. Trump has a vast re-election war chest, enviable favorability ratings and committed legions of voters eager to push him to a second term. The most important cause for every black voter — indeed, for every sensible American voter, regardless of race or religion — is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Trump has unleashed malign forces of bigotry and xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that threaten to tear the country apart. He has encouraged white nationalists, cozied up to foreign dictators and threatened harm to his political rivals. It is hard to exaggerate the misery that might come from his winning a second term.
For black voters, that ought to mean casting a ballot for the Democratic standard-bearer, whoever that may be. I am no fan of Bernie Sanders, but if he wins the nomination, I will stand in line for hours to vote for him in November if that’s what it takes. And I would do the same for Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden or — unlikeliest of nominees — Tom Steyer. Or, yes, even the billionaire Mike Bloomberg.
Bloomberg has been subjected to a torrent of (largely justified) criticism over the last few months for expanding the abhorrent policing strategy of stop-and-frisk during his tenure as mayor of New York. In a recently released audio tape, he is heard justifying the policy in frankly racist terms.
But it takes a rank naivete to think that Trump is no worse than Bloomberg. He is much, much worse. And now that he has been acquitted of his crimes by the Senate, he will act on his malign impulses with no restraints. Trump is the man who paid for ads to demonize five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted in 1990 of the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger, a prosecution hauntingly portrayed in the 2019 Netflix miniseries, When They See Us. (The president has since refused to apologize for his role.) Trump is the man who entered the political stage as a loud birther, claiming that President Barack Obama was an illegitimate usurper. Trump is the man who insists that black neighborhoods all over the country are cesspools of crime and degeneracy.
For the record, the job of ridding the country of Donald J. Trump should not fall to black and brown voters alone. Every thinking American — every true constitutionalist, every patriot, every believer in democracy — should be abhorred by the prospect of another four years. But for voters of color, especially, the stakes are very high.