Dr. Michael Fauntroy explains how to leverage growing Black political power the right way

April 29, 2013

Dr-Michael-FauntroyBy Dr. Michael Fauntroy

President Barack Obama’s reelection confirmed many of the long-seen demographic changes occurring in the United States. The 2012 electorate was younger, more educated, and more racially diverse than any in our nation’s history.  The lesson in all this for African Americans is just as profound: be prepared to use the new arithmetic of Black political power or watch it diminish in an increasingly diverse and more resource competitive nation.
First, the demographics
African Americans comprised 13 percent of the 2012 electorate, the same percentage as 2008; however, the 2012 national electorate and African American electorate were down relative to 2008. There is still room for significant growth. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there are roughly 26.6 million voting-age eligible African Americans as of 2008; of that number 16.68 million (or 62.7 percent) cast ballots in 2012.
Latinos comprised 10 percent of the 2012 electorate, building on the 2008 total of eight percent. As the largest racial minority in the nation, and with projections indicating that 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 years of age each month for the next 20 years, their political impact relative to their proportion of the nation’s population has not been fully realized.
Whites comprised 72 percent of the 2012 general electorate, down from 87 percent in 1992. The white share of the national electorate has consistently fallen for nearly a generation, from 87 percent in 1992, to 83 percent in 1996, to 81 percent in 2000, to 77 percent in 2004, to 74 percent in 2008, to 72 percent in 2012.
Asian Americans comprise three percent of the 2012 electorate. However, they are America’s fastest-growing ethnic group and are an important and underrated portion of the swing vote in states like Virginia and North Carolina.
Bottom line: With the white share of the electorate in continued decline, the Latino vote not yet solidified, and the Asian American vote still in growth-mode, African Americans are presented with an opportunity to apply political power, not just influence, in the years ahead by picking who wins elections.
Now, the politics
Conventional wisdom has held that because African Americans comprise a relatively small segment of America’s population, it cannot amass enough political power to make real, lasting, and effective change in some of the areas that still besiege our communities. I disagree. I think the power does exist, but has been unrealized because of low electoral turnout. Early analysis of the 2012 election returns suggest that the  2012 election is the first in recorded history in which the African American turnout rate exceeded the white turnout rate. If confirmed, that milestone may well prove to the be launching point for a new arithmetic of Black political power. African American turnout has increased in each of the last four presidential elections. That has great potential for down ballot races and, if continued and coupled with further erosion of the White vote, greater political power for African Americans.
This, then, opens the door to real change on issues ranging from the prison-industrial complex, which warehouses Black men in community-damaging proportions, to access to college which, in an era of diminishing resources, has the power to be the salvation for Black people in America. Utilizing public policy to reroute the pipeline from community-to-prison to community-to-college  can only occur with overwhelming electoral turnout that results in the elections of people who will put into practice those policies that reflect our collective ideals. So while African American turnout has been at or near record levels in the last two elections, the post-Obama era will require even greater participation from African Americans, in all elections at all levels, to truly result in change.
This will not be easy. Exercising power, and not just settling for symbols, is difficult. It requires that we sometimes be tough with our friends and punish our opponents. Ultimately, however, African Americans will have to be comfortable with the use of political power for achieving policy ends. Politics without policy change is nothing. Failing that, we will continue to get what we’ve always received.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of “Republicans and the Black Vote.” His next book, “Attacking Democracy: Conservatism and Black Voter Suppression,” will be published in 2014. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com and can be followed on Twitter on @MKFauntroy.