Dear Candidates: Here Is What Black People Want

We long for the same things as everyone else, and yet few campaigns treat us as if our experiences matter.

By Alicia Garza | The New York Times | May 28, 2019

During election season, I always cringe when I see candidates eating fried chicken next to a bottle of hot sauce in Harlem or taking staged photos with black leaders. These shallow symbolic gestures are not a substitute for meaningful engagement with black voters. And candidates should know that we see right through them.

Candidates and their campaigns are comfortable talking at black people, but few want to talk to us. This limits our ability to influence their decisions and policies. And it’s a bad strategy at a time when black people, black women in particular, form the base of the Democratic Party, are its most loyal voters and mobilize other people to go to the polls.

That’s why, in 2018, I started the Black Census Project, the results of which we are releasing on Tuesday. More than 31,000 black people from all 50 states participated in what we believe is the largest independent survey of black people ever conducted in the United States.

Glen Taylor of the Chicago-based group Equity and Transformation practiced conducting surveys last year in Atlanta as part of the Black Census Project.CreditDerica Wilson

My organization and our partners trained more than 100 black organizers and worked with some 30 grass-roots organizations. We invested more than half a million dollars so that they could reach black people, who are often sidelined in traditional surveys and mainstream politics.

We set out to prove that black people are not a monolith — we are diverse and have a range of experiences. We talked with black people who live in cities and in rural areas; black people who were born in the United States and who migrated here; black people who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual; black people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming; black people who are liberal and conservative; and black people who are currently and formerly incarcerated.

How Black People See Politicians’ Priorities

Question: “How much do you think politicians care about the following groups?” Ranked by most to least positive overall by percentage of respondents

We predicted that there would be different responses among black people of various ages, locations and family structures, and there were. Not everyone is affected the same way by the issues we all face. The need for adequate health care, for example, takes on greater urgency among black people in Alabama, where Republican lawmakers are blocking Medicaid expansion.

But what surprised us the most was how few candidates treat us as if our differences and experiences matter. Here is what we found:

  1. The most common response among people who were politically engaged was that no politician or pollster has ever asked them what their lives were like. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that politicians do not care about black people, and one in three said they care only a little.

  2. Yet this doesn’t stifle our participation in politics. Nearly three in four respondents said they voted in the 2016 presidential election, and 40 percent reported helping to register voters, giving people a ride to the polls, donating money to a candidate or handing out campaign materials. Six in 10 women surveyed reported being electorally engaged. These responses debunk the myth that black communities don’t show up to vote — we do and we bring other people with us.

  3. Black communities, particularly black women, will be instrumental in deciding the next president. Nearly 60 percent of respondents were women, and nearly half lived in the South.

  4. We want the things that everybody deserves. Ninety percent of respondents, for example, say that it is a major problem that their wages are too low to support a family, and that figure jumps to 97 percent among those who are electorally engaged.

The most important issues for respondents were also the most important issues facing the rest of the country — low wages, lack of quality health care, substandard housing, rising college costs and different sets of rules for the wealthy and the poor. Of course, a majority of Americans face these difficulties. But black communities experience them more acutely.

For every dollar white men earn, black women, for example, earn 65 cents, whereas white women earn 82 cents. Black families make up a large portion of those who use public housing assistance programs, which are underfunded and lacking in meaningful oversight. And then the average cost of attending a public college with in-state tuition is roughly $14,000 a year — that’s out of reach for so many black families, whose median household income is $40,000 and whose median wealth is only $16,000.

To solve these challenges, respondents propose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, making college affordable for anyone who wants to attend and requiring the government to provide health care and adequate housing for everyone. A vast majority of them want to see the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

Trusted, or Not, by the Black Community

Question: “How much confidence do you have in each of these institutions, groups or organizations?” Ranked by most to least positive overall by percentage of respondents.