The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Broken promises of the past weigh on black voters as they consider the 2020 presidential campaign

Ariana Hawk of Flint, Mich., said she has become convinced that all the attention in 2016 from presidential hopefuls to her city and its water crisis was for nothing. (Mark Felix/For The Washington Post)

FLINT, Mich. — Ariana Hawk’s trust in the promises that presidential candidates make to black communities evaporated about the same time the 2016 election ended and the candidates stopped coming to town.

Flint’s crisis with lead-tainted water had put Hawk’s hometown in the national spotlight, prompting Hillary Clinton and her rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump, to make appearances there. Hawk, full of hope, voted for Clinton — but since the election, she has become convinced that all the attention from the politicians was for nothing.

“The day after she lost, we were like, ‘Where have they gone?’” said Hawk, 29, a mother of five, who says she is fighting cynicism about the 2020 Democratic field. Still, she can’t help but think, “This is some other candidate, saying some bull to get us out here to vote or something like that.”

Black Americans will have a big say in the outcome of the Democratic presidential nomination. They make up 20 percent of the party’s primary voters nationwide — including nearly 6 in 10 voters in the pivotal, early South Carolina primary. And as one of the party’s most loyal voting blocs, their turnout level in the general election will be a crucial factor in whether the Democratic nominee can beat President Trump.

But interviews with dozens of black voters in three competitive states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — found deep divisions beneath that party loyalty about the best way to wield the power they bring to the ballot box, and a sense that past political engagement has been met with broken promises and little progress for struggling communities.

In addition to regional and generational divides, voters’ perceptions are further muddied by the fact that there are nearly two dozen major candidates, including six women and two black senators — minority candidates who have to contend with the disappointment of some black voters who feel the first black president didn’t do enough for them.

Some said the best choice is the most pragmatic one: Support the candidate with the best chance of ousting Trump, even if that means passing on African American candidates or others who might do more to affect the fortunes of black Americans. For many, at the moment, that choice is former vice president Joe Biden, a view that has been affirmed in recent polls that show him drawing broad support from black voters.

Others, particularly those whose political activism was ignited by the #blacklivesmatter and #livingwhileblack movements, say black voters have an obligation to prod candidates to advocate for key issues in return for their support.

Some interviewed for this story said they were open to backing one of the two highest-profile black candidates — Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) — but worried that supporting a candidate based largely on identity could be a waste if neither Harris nor Booker starts to get more traction in polls or fundraising.

Others said they were waiting for the possible entry of a new candidate, Stacey Abrams, whose near-win in the Georgia governor’s race and defiant refusal to concede in what she says was an election decided by systemic voter disenfranchisement have made her one of the country’s most popular Democratic figures.

Abrams, who recently rebuffed party leaders’ attempts to persuade her to run for the Senate, is weighing a presidential bid and another run for governor — and her name came up repeatedly in interviews with voters and activists who described her as a bona fide champion for African Americans far beyond her home state.

“I think people like Stacey Abrams,” said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a Philadelphia activist who is running a write-in campaign for city council. “People trust her. People might not necessarily agree with all of her policies, but people at least trust that what she’s saying she believes in, and that’s what I mean.”

Stacey Abrams remains mum about plans during visit to Washington

Muhammad, 35, said Abrams’s stature as a champion for African Americans, including her work as a voting rights activist, stand in contrast to seemingly contrived efforts by some candidates in the field to relate to blacks.

“I see them as saying the things that they think they need to say to win versus saying the things that they actually embody or believe, even like around reparations or around marijuana,” Muhammad said, referring to issues that have sparked discussions in black America over whether to compensate descendants of slaves and over how to ease penalties for minor drug offenders.

“To hear Kamala Harris say, ‘Yeah, I smoked weed before.’ Or to hear people’s positions on reparations when they’ve never done anything quote-unquote radical in their politics ever. And if you’re going to propose reparations for black people who have been impacted by slavery, that’s a radical act. And I don’t see any of them kind of holding radical politics.”

Some voters said they are taking a more pragmatic view.

Standing in the back of a room at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte on a Friday afternoon, Rosemary Lawrence watched a speech by Booker and agreed with almost everything he said about guns.

Lawrence, 75, found Booker to be eloquent and charismatic, although she’s also a big fan of Harris and has been impressed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and her takes on policy issues.

But Lawrence plans to vote for Biden, the candidate she thinks has the best chance to beat Trump.

African Americans say presidential candidates are missing basic connections

“I am so sick and tired of hearing breaking news every day because of something that the president has said or is planning to do,” she said after Booker’s speech and between asking people if they are registered to vote. “I can’t even watch [cable news] anymore because of [Trump]. That’s why it’s most important to me to get him out.”

Ousting Trump is a key issue for large chunks of Democratic voters, and African Americans are no exception. But for some, the desire is so strong it’s worth tabling issues they feel are singularly important for black Americans.

“Because it’s so early, this would almost seem like the time to be ambitious and be ideologues about the perfect candidates, but American history has taught black folks that being ambitious means that when you fail, failing can be spectacular,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law who has studied black voting behavior.

“What we see is black voters going with the safe choice, which seems to be Biden by leaps and bounds. He’s safe not because of his policy positions, but because we’ve seen him in the public eye since he was the vice president to the first black president.”

But with such a large and diverse field, some said this primary offers an ideal opportunity to coalesce around a candidate who will be a true fighter for policies that will boost black Americans.

One question raised repeatedly by voters interviewed for this story is whether the candidates best positioned to court black voters would be those who are black themselves.

For now, many of the black voters who turned out in droves to make Barack Obama the first black president seem more guarded in their support of those who want to be the second.

In South Carolina, where blacks are the single biggest voter group in the Democratic primary, Harris and Booker are running well behind Biden among black voters in early polls. Those numbers reflect a sentiment that the candidates haven’t proved their viability, experts and activists say, but also reveal concerns that a black candidate won’t be a panacea to the problems of black America.

“Before, black folks were like, ‘We have to cross this bridge. Barack over everything,’ ” said Keneshia N. Grant, a political science professor at Howard University. “But for some portion of the black electorate, Barack Obama did not deliver what he was expected to deliver.”

That disappointment, she said, has black voters “holding the next black candidate to a higher standard — not just ‘are you black,’ but ‘what is that blackness going to get me?’ ”

For all of the energy that helped power Obama into the White House, some voters and activists said, many African American communities still struggle with the same lack of economic opportunity and hopelessness that they endured before Obama’s tenure.

“I think a lot of black people say they picked Obama and the gay community benefited. The Latino community benefited, but not really the black community,” said Ryan Boyer, business manager of the Laborers’ District Council of the Metropolitan Area of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the city’s only majority-black building trades union.

Boyer said he has spoken to fellow union members who expressed regret about throwing union or minority support behind Obama and Clinton too soon in past campaigns. They worried that the early backing gave candidates the ability to court other voting blocs that remained uncommitted.

“Black people, black women particularly, saw what they can do in Alabama,” Boyer said, referring to the 2017 Senate race in which black female voters were credited with helping to ensure victory for Democrat Doug Jones. “They saw what they could do to help Stacey Abrams in Georgia. It’s no longer just ‘We’re here, but we understand you have to court the white working male.’ We want to be courted, too.”

Some activists said their views about the presidential race are shaped by their experiences watching local politics, particularly in urban areas where some black leaders have been accused of not being able to effect social or economic change for their constituents.

Philadelphia still has high black incarceration and poverty rates, despite electing three black mayors since 1984, said Muhammad, the activist-turned-council-candidate.

“The city has gotten worse for black people under their mayorship,” he said. “Representation isn’t enough. We’ve seen black leadership kind of do the same thing, the kind of neoliberal thing that white leadership has done. I don’t think people are sold anymore after Obama on the idea of like a black person in office, like a black savior or a black person that is going to help us through this.”

Hawk, the Flint, Mich., mother of five, has similar sentiments about the Democratic Party and her hometown.

She remembers conversations around the dinner table in her childhood about the General Motors plant and whether President Bill Clinton was doing enough to help its workers. Years later, the conversation shifted to talk of family members who’d lost their jobs and were moving into her family’s home.

“We went from everybody having their own homes to people consolidating under one roof,” she said. “Everybody moved in with my mom.”

Those lessons, then the ones she learned as an adult during the water crisis, have left her cynical about politicians who show up without a blueprint for fulfilling their promises.

“To me, you’ve got to show how you plan to implement it,” she said. “Because you can tell me anything and then four years later you’ll be like, ‘I thought I was going to be able to do it, you know, but it wasn’t in my power.’

“I don’t want to go through that no more. I don’t want nobody to go through that no more.”