Politics & Policy

What’s the Matter with Harlem?

Are Democrats' policies good for blacks?

Each election cycle for the last 20 years, Republicans have been hoping to increase their tiny share of the black vote. The November midterm was no exception. But despite having three solid black candidates in Ken Blackwell, Michael Steele, and Lynn Swann, the GOP’s nationwide share of the black vote failed to register any notable improvement. An article in the Washington Post a few days after the election suggested that one of the reasons Republicans didn’t post any gains is that blacks voted their self-interests. But there isn’t always a linear or readily identifiable correlation between votes and the perceived self-interests of voters.

In his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?,Thomas Frank explores the phenomenon of working class Kansans who regularly vote against their apparent economic self-interests by voting for Republicans, whose policies ostensibly favor the wealthy and privileged. The underlying assumption is that the policies supported by Democrats better advance the economic interests of the poor and working class. Therefore, absent other (viz., cultural) factors affecting the electoral judgment of these voters they should, by all logic, vote for Democrats.

Presumably, Frank would find the voting habits of blacks more logical. A large percentage of blacks are poor or working class and blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. If the Democrats’ policies are, in fact, better for blacks than those of the Republicans then blacks clearly are voting their self-interests. And emphatically so.

Blacks have been the Democrats’ most reliable voting block for nearly 50 years. In the November midterm, 89 percent of black voters cast ballots for Democrats. This is typical. In 2000 Al Gore received 92 percent of the black vote. In 2004 John Kerry received 88 percent of the black vote.

These percentages aren’t just impressive; for Democrats they’re imperative. Since 1980 the percentage of white votes received by the Democrats’ candidate for president usually has hovered around 39 percent or less. Unless they maintain a vice grip on at least 90 percent of the black vote, Democrats’ presidential prospects fade into oblivion.

Both parties know this. If the GOP peeled off just 5–10 percent more of the black vote, Democrats would be in perpetual electoral jeopardy. But it wasn’t until the 2000 presidential election that Republicans began pursuing the black vote vigorously. President Bush received a mere 8 percent of the black vote that year, but after dedicating unprecedented attention to expanding the number of black GOP voters the percentage increased to 12 in 2004. That might not seem like much, but because of increased voter turnout President Bush’s black vote count rose by nearly 100 percent.

The lesson is that the GOP can make a consequential dent in the black Democrat monolith — a lesson not lost on former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, whose indefatigable efforts to enlarge the gains were blunted by Katrina (and the racial demagoguery that surrounded it) as well as other issues that resulted in general voter disenchantment with Republicans.

Michael Steele ran an outstanding campaign to capture a larger than usual GOP share of the black vote and received the endorsement of a number of black Democrats, including six prominent Prince George’s County council members. But their support generated a controversy that goes to the issue of whether a black vote for Democrats is, perforce, a vote for black self-interests. The Post reported that several black Prince George’s County voters excoriated the black council members for supporting Steele. At one civic meeting a black voter confronted the council’s black vice chairman, stating, “When I vote for someone, I vote the issues. Did you agree with the Republican on the issues?”

The theme of the confrontation was that blacks agree with Democrats, not Republicans, on the issues. The solid support given by blacks to Democrats strongly indicates that’s true. But in providing such support are blacks voting their self-interests? Consider the effect upon blacks of Democrats’ positions on just the following few issues.

Minimum-wage increase

The new Democrat-controlled House passed an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15/hr. to $7.25/hr. The late Milton Friedman once stated that “We regard the minimum wage as one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books” (A good argument could be made that the minimum wage vies for this title with the Davis-Bacon Act–supported uniformly by Democrats–mandating that prevailing wages be paid on government construction projects and passed for the express purpose of preventing blacks from competing with whites for public-works jobs). Thomas Sowell has been equally contemptuous of the minimum wage.

Sharp increases in the minimum wage price unskilled workers out of the labor market, a dislocation that falls most heavily on young black males. Such increases impair the ability of unskilled workers to get the entry-level jobs that are the first rungs on the ladder of upward job mobility. Walter Williams has noted that in 1948, before sizeable increases in the minimum wage, the unemployment rate for black teenagers was 9.4 percent– actually lower than that for white teens. Today, black youth unemployment is at 32 percent–double the rate for white teens. This isn’t to suggest an unalloyed cause-and-effect, but to note that the Democrats’ panacea of a “living wage” isn’t helping its intended beneficiaries as advertised. As someone once said, a wage, minimum or otherwise, presumes a job.

Public education and School Choice

Millions of black kids are trapped in medieval public schools that are insulated from competition and consequently have insufficient incentive to deliver a quality education. Yet Democrats resist providing meaningful choice, insisting instead on that infallible remedy, “full funding.” They’re encouraged, apparently, by how well this solution has worked in places like Newark, New Jersey, which spends nearly $18,000 per student—the most of any major public school system in the nation–but where only 30 percent of 8th graders can pass the annual proficiency test in math. Or perhaps they’re brightened by the example of the Washington, D.C., public school system, which also has among the highest per-pupil expenditures in the country yet perennially returns among the lowest test scores.

As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have noted, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card”, less than 25 percent of black 17-year-olds can read as well as the average white 17-year-old. Nearly 90 percent of black 17-year-olds score below the average white 17-year-old in math. More than 90 percent of black 17-year-olds score below the average white 17-year-old in science. The average black high-school graduate has the academic skills of the average white 8th grader.

These figures have proven impervious to increased spending. In fact, in some cases the gap has widened at the same time public-school spending has gone up. But Democrats continue to oppose choice, consigning another generation of black kids to educational purgatory.

Affirmative Action 

Democrats are the champions of affirmative action. (Ward Connerly would remind that some elite Republicans are complicit also.) Since racial preferences in college admissions most heavily favor blacks, it would appear, at first blush, that black votes for Democrats are self-interested indeed. But evidence continues to accumulate that affirmative action may be one of the greatest scams perpetrated on blacks.

Studies by, for example, the Center for Equal Opportunity show that the racial preferences employed by some college-admissions offices boost a black applicant’s odds of admission over a similarly-situated white comparative by a factor of 200, often much more. This results in what UCLA law professor Richard Sander calls the “mismatch effect” — i.e., black students being admitted at schools in which they’re poorly qualified to compete. Consequently, black students are more likely to perform poorly and flunk out. For example, professor Sander found that 50 percent of black law students settle in the bottom 10 percent of their respective classes. Black law students are two and a half times more likely than whites not to graduate. Blacks are four times more likely to fail the bar exam.

The benefits to blacks of racial preferences in government contracting also have proven illusory. A common pattern in many regions is for just one or two (often politically-favored) black companies to be the dominant beneficiaries of preferential contracting and for white female, Asian Indian or other “disadvantaged” businesses to leapfrog the remainder of the black contractors bidding for the work. At least one analysis shows that black-owned companies that rely on minority-contracting preferences are more likely to go out of business than those that don’t go after such contracts.

Welfare and the war on poverty

Were this a shooting war, the Democrats would have redeployed in 1965. As it stands, after 40 years and a couple of trillion dollars, misguided, if well-intended, policies have contributed to a toxic culture of grievance and dependency that, while not confined to a particular race, has been especially damaging to the black underclass.

The list of issue conflicts between the Democrats’ policy positions and the interests of black voters goes on: illegal immigration, abortion, and Social Security reform, to name a few. But don’t expect any noteworthy changes in black-voter allegiance in the short term. A comment made by a black law student after an affirmative-action debate in which I participated illustrates one of the obstacles faced by the GOP. The student candidly acknowledged that affirmative action often harms its purported beneficiaries and that its proponents are, as he put it “condescending and insulting.” Even so, he asked, “How can we (blacks) support Republicans given the Republicans’ history toward blacks in this country?”

I pointed out that it wasn’t the GOP that had opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Nor was it Republicans who opposed the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection or the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing voting rights. It wasn’t Republicans who opposed Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-lynching legislation, or that filibustered or otherwise opposed more than a dozen anti-lynching bills during the last century. Republicans didn’t institutionalize Jim Crow or implement school segregation or institute poll taxes or literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. Bull Connor, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus, and George Wallace weren’t Republicans. In fact, Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act in higher percentages than did Democrats.

The student and a group of other black law students who had gathered around after the debate looked somewhat surprised. One student confessed that she would’ve bet that “Democrats” should be substituted for “Republicans” in each of the examples I cited. (This isn’t to disparage the student. If you’re wondering how someone can make it to law school without knowing the forgoing facts, see “Public Education and School Choice” above.)

Certainly, the GOP’s record concerning blacks is far from unassailable, but that doesn’t explain a 50-year black allegiance to Democrats. So what does explain it? Well, as Mark Steyn might say “Never underestimate the seductive power of inertia.”

There are several more substantive reasons, obviously. But that’s for another article.

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is also a member of the National Labor Relations Board. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of either organization.


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