When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Charlane Oliver knew things had to change — and that mobilizing Black Americans was the solution.
A week after the 2016 election, the longtime Nashville, Tenn., community organizer and political worker helped found the Equity Alliance, a grassroots organization committed to encouraging Black civic engagement, from voting to running for political office.
“(Trump has made clear) our lives are not as valued,” she said. “So why would we let that continue another four years?”
After helping the Tennessee Black Voter Project register more than 90,000 new voters ahead of the 2018 midterms — nearly doubling their original goal — Oliver and the Equity Alliance are now looking ahead to November’s presidential election, aiming to replace Trump with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
But that’s not because Black voters necessarily see Biden as the answer to the many issues afflicting their community, Oliver said. They just say a second Trump term could be catastrophic.
Fighting for change
2020 has shone a harsh new light on the systemic racism and inequalities, including in health care and their own public safety, that Black people face in the United States.
By April, Black people — who make up just 12 per cent of the U.S. population — accounted for over 40 per cent of COVID-19 deaths to date, an Associated Press analysis of government data found. A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Urban League found the Black death rate is twice that of whites amid the pandemic, and are more prone to both infections and hospitalizations.
Concern has also been raised about access to the U.S. government’s loan program for small businesses, based on studies that suggest Black-owned businesses may have a harder time getting approved. A 2016 paper by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found only one per cent of Black business owners get a bank loan during their first year of business, compared with seven per cent of white business owners.
Then in May, George Floyd died after a white police officer dug his knee into his neck.
The deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and more sparked a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. The rallies were even more widespread than those inspired by Black deaths like Eric Garner and Michael Brown just a few years earlier, and inspired some local police departments — including Minneapolis, where Floyd died — to enact reforms and reallocate budgets.
His limited executive order on police reform was announced along with pledges to “stand with law enforcement,” winning him support from police unions but little from the communities calling out for help and change. Black Lives Matter, in the president’s words, was “a symbol of hate,” while protests in its name have been met with the National Guard.
Trump has, over the course of his presidency, had some achievements he often points to when courting Black voters. He signed into law the First Step Act, which among other things eases some of the harsh drug offender sentences introduced by Biden’s 1994 crime bill. Black unemployment hit multiple historical lows before the pandemic hit.
Trump also restored funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and introduced “opportunity zones“: tax breaks for certain investments made in or near low income communities. Investigations by Politico and the New York Times have found opportunity zones have benefitted wealthy developers and middle-income neighbourhoods more than poor Black communities.
“He’s delivered on quite a few of the promises that he’s made, but no one wants to admit that,” Kimberley Marshall of Charlotte, N.C., told the Associated Press.
In that same report, Kannapolis, N.C., resident Addul Ali said Trump’s accomplishments make repeated accusations of racism hard to support.
“I never heard a word about Donald Trump being a racist until he came down the escalator,” he said, referring to the then-candidate’s entrance to his campaign kickoff speech in 2015.
Black members of the Trump administration like Ben Carson were prominently featured at the Republican National Convention this summer, as well as Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator. Ja’Ron Smith, a deputy assistant to the president who helped spearhead the funding for HBCUs, said Trump “really cares and he takes action.”
At the same time, the president has repeatedly refused to condemn white supremacist groups, only doing so begrudgingly after the fact. And he is currently fighting against efforts in education and workplace training to paint a more realistic portrait of America’s systemic racism.
“I mean, he’ll call Black Lives Matter terrorism but not white supremacy? Just because (white supremacists) will vote for him?” said John Powell, a civil rights expert and director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California Berkeley.
“That’s what we’re voting for here, not just our democracy but for Black lives as well. And if we don’t get it right, God help us.”
Powell has also been working with organizations that are focused on driving up the Black vote. While he says there’s “palpable enthusiasm” in the community, particularly among young people, that enthusiasm is mostly for rejecting Trump rather than embracing Biden.
“Most Black people, especially Black women, really understand that Trump is dangerous,” he said.
That claim has been backed by polling. A CBS News/BET poll released Sunday found that only 42 per cent of younger Black voters under 30 are enthusiastic about Biden, although nine in 10 said they would never vote for Trump, matching older demographics.
A June poll by the Washington Post/Ipsos, which put racism and police conduct as Black Americans’ main election issues, found 87 per cent of Black voters of all ages will back Biden. Yet another Ipsos poll for Reuters that same month found Blacks are nine per cent less committed to Biden than they were to Hillary Clinton at the same point in the 2016 race.
Polls also suggest about 10 per cent of Black voters both nationally and in key swing states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania support Trump. Surveys from the Pew Research Center over the past 30 years have found about one in 10 Black Americans identify as Republican, compared to over 80 per cent who align with the Democrats.
Black Voices for Trump, a Trump campaign Facebook group, did not return multiple requests for comment from Global News. The Trump campaign similarly did not answer repeated requests for an interview or statement on their plan for Black Americans.
For Brianna Brown, director of the grassroots Texas Organizing Project, Trump’s election was not met with the same surprise that others had. If anything, she had been preparing for it for decades.
“I was basically like, ‘welcome the United States to Texas,’ because we’ve been under a right-wing regime for the past 25-plus years,” she said. “Fighting for health care, voting rights — those are familiar fights. So we knew we had to amplify our message.”
Like the Equity Alliance, the Texas Organizing Project focuses on voter registration, electoral organizing and fighting for access to the polls. And in recent months, those issues have only risen to the forefront.
Texas has tried to limit each county, regardless of size, to just one ballot drop-off site, a move that is still in the courts. Alabama moved to strike down curbside voting for seniors and immobilized citizens which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld. The high court also denied an extension to Wisconsin’s Election Day deadline for mail-in ballots to be received and counted.
Efforts to limit voting stretch back to past elections, even before the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — including the one held just two years ago.
Those 90,000 Tennessee voter registrations in 2018 ultimately led to stiff penalties against organizing groups like the Equity Alliance that send in large numbers of incomplete or deficient registration forms. The state law, one of the toughest in the country, has been called a form of Black voter suppression in a lawsuit filed against the Tennessee government.
Polling has already shown Black people are facing disproportionate obstacles at the ballot box in early voting. An Axios/Ipsos poll from Oct. 17 found nearly one in four Black voters had experienced “some irregularity” while voting, compared to 15 per cent of white voters polled.
That isn’t stopping organizers like Brown. The Texas Organizing Project says it is engaging over 1.4 million infrequent or new Black and Latino voters, with the goal of securing 300,000 votes for Biden’s campaign. As of late October, Texas was leading the nation in early voting.
“I’ve been watching voters go in and cast their ballots, and there is a real urgency, a real momentum,” she said.
“Black voters have been outperforming all other demographics just in Harris County (the state’s largest county) alone. So I have optimism about how many people want to participate in democracy right now. There is something uniquely uniting about the atrocity that this presidency has been.”
Holding Democrats accountable
If Biden is elected, Oliver, Brown and Powell appear to agree that it’s only the first step of a long journey toward real change.
While Biden has rejected defunding the police and other progressive parts of the Black Lives Matter agenda, he says he will champion policies that advance economic mobility and access to education for Black Americans, though he has offered few specifics or detailed budgets for those programs.
He has also advocated for widespread police and criminal justice reform beyond the orders and legislation Trump has signed. So has Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, who helped author the Democratic police reform bill that stalled in Congress this year.
Yet Oliver says she’s “suspicious” of how much Biden and Harris will be able to accomplish.
“How you campaign is how you’re going to govern, the way I see it. I need to see action and not just words,” she said.
“It’s great that you want to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. It’s great that you have a Black woman as your vice presidential candidate. But what we really need is economic justice in this country. And unless you’re going to put some money behind your words and your policies, then I don’t believe it.”
Powell said the Democratic party has a long history of courting Black people without following it up with proper investments. But with the Republican base growing increasingly white and gaining support from far-right groups like the Proud Boys, Black voters are being left with two options: vote for a party they don’t trust, or don’t vote at all.
“(Democrats) would have more enthusiasm if there wasn’t this long history of people ignoring the Black community,” he said.
“Some Black folks will say, ‘Oh, it must be election time because there are white people in my neighbourhood.’ They show up every four years and then they disappear, and nothing happens. That’s the reality. Will that change now? It’s honestly too soon to say.”
Last week, rapper Ice Cube revealed he was helping the Trump administration with its “Platinum Plan,” which promises improved jobs, education and health care for the Black community. That prompted Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to say on Monday the president and Republicans are the only party that can help Black Americans.
“President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about,” Kushner said in an interview with Fox News. “But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”
Brown says organizers are also caught between holding the line on what’s already been achieved so it’s not lost — like with the Voting Rights Act — and pushing for a larger vision, which means also not disappearing after the presidential election.
“We’ve got to stop fighting for crumbs,” she said. “That’s why we’re always pushing people to pay attention to their Senate race, their House race, their mayoral and state legislature races, their sheriffs, their prosecutors. All of those votes and elections make a difference. And that includes running for office too.”
But with Nov. 3 just days away, Oliver says it’s important for voters to keep their eye on what’s at stake.
“My biggest fear is that democracy will be dead if the wrong person gets elected … (and) hope is going to be lost and people will turn from being apathetic to being indifferent,” she said. “But I feel really encouraged right now because the people are actually going to vote.
“This is going to be a turnout election for the history books. That is encouraging — that democracy, regardless of who wins or not, democracy actually will win in this election.”