It didn’t seem to be that controversial of a statement given the data. Since the Donald Trump presidency; the Georgia governor’s race; the St. Louis mayoral race and others, a certain number of black men have been sneaking back into the Sunken Place voting booth. Whether it’s partisanship, misogyny, or vague notions of “electability,” research shows (pdf) some black men will find any excuse not to vote for a woman, even a black one.
So when the Beat DC Editor Tiffany Cross said “Kamala Harris has a working-class black man problem” on AM Joy back in February, it made perfect sense to me. Harris has been dogged by #ADOS (African Descendants of Slaves) claiming she’s an existential threat to blue-collar black men. Her critics have pushed the narrative that Harris spent her whole career as a prosecutor locking up black men in California. Even some of our own writers have called attention to these issues.
Luther Campbell formerly of 2 Live Crew wrote a whole op-ed in the Miami Times basically warning the brothers against a Harris candidacy. While #ADOS and Uncle Luke aren’t on the Sunday political talk shows, they do speak to and for a segment of black men who have voices, and more importantly, votes.
On that same show, I argued that Kamala Harris needed black male surrogates, similar to what rapper Killer Mike did for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Voices with credibility pushing for her with working-class black men in the crucial primary state of South Carolina. I noted that her husband, an affluent white man, probably wouldn’t be the best ambassador to talk to blue-collar brothers working the stock room at the Piggly Wiggly in Beaufort County. What was common sense campaign analysis to me was apparently a racist, sexist, flaming hot take to others; the push-back online, via text and phone was loud, intense and lasted for days. Harris’ supporters and staffers bristled at the idea that these kinds of identity conversations were legitimate.
Of course, both things could be true. Yes, some analysis of Sen. Harris is racist and sexist, but it could also be true that she may need the votes of some sexist or racist black men.
“There are some black men who, no matter what Kamala Harris does, will not support her. So in that instance, that’s their problem,” Cross noted when discussing the Harris campaign.
“However, there are black men who view the senator as the face of those who shunned them, who didn’t stand with them, who was part of the sect of society eager to lock them up. That’s the candidate’s issue to connect with them and convince them otherwise. If environmentalists didn’t think the senator supported addressing climate change, I’d say she needed a green validator to help connect. It’s the same here.”
Is there some silent majority of black men out there hating on Harris? I didn’t know for sure, but in group texts in suburban Charleston, over a sweaty post-pickup-game beer in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and among black men I know, this question was being asked: Can a biracial, light-skinned black woman from California, married to a white Jewish man, win the votes of working-class black men in a state that’s never elected a black woman statewide? Perhaps more importantly, would she even need, too?
In the journey to answer this uncomfortable question, I discovered black men finding their place in 2020, what Kamala Harris’ actual challenges are, and most importantly, who holds the real black power in the most important primary of 2020.
“When 13 percent of us [black men] voted for Trump, we can’t be ignored,” said Antjuan Seawright a well-dressed Gen-Xer who’s consulted in South Carolina politics for years.
“Black women get all sensitive about it, in particular [pundits],” he added. “Most of the traditional leadership roles here are still black men. She [Harris] needs somebody who can confirm her credibility and her candidacy to the boys in the neighborhood barbershop and the gym and the spades table.”
Like many of the men I spoke to, Seawright was cautious; he didn’t want to offend black female political operatives in the state. Nevertheless, he insisted black men in South Carolina were an overlooked demographic by Harris; they can’t be ignored and when you look at the numbers you can see why.
In 2016, African Americans made up 61 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary vote, according to a CNN exit poll. But break those numbers down by gender, and you see something truly historic.
Black Women: 37%
Black Men: 24%
White women: 21%
White men: 14%
Black men are more important than even white women in the South Carolina Democratic primary. They are the swing vote in a state where race drives primary voting. In 2016, nearly 370,000 South Carolinians voted in the Democratic primary. When you crunch the numbers from the exit poll to calculate the raw vote totals, the results are even more stark:
147,000 Black Women Voters
88,000 Black men
77,000 White Women
52,000 White men
Why does that matter so much to Sen. Harris’ chances in 2020? Publicly, every Democratic candidate will tell you that they want every vote, but the reality is you have to bring home your own people. Harris’ chances to be at the top or bottom of a ticket will hinge on her ability to turn out black voters. She can’t rely on running up the score with white men or liberal women, given that Biden, Warren and Sanders will probably survive until South Carolina, or even black men if Booker is in the race. Hillary Clinton won black women 89-11 and black men 82-18 in 2016, a 14-point swing in a primary race that was a foregone conclusion long before Jim Webb was bragging about his kills in Vietnam during debates. In other words, Harris cannot assume that winning over black women automatically translates into winning over black men. Many of the black men I spoke to in South Carolina were giving Harris the polite church clap, but weren’t necessarily ready to put bills in the collection plate.
“They [black men in S.C.] like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker,” Seawright said. “Everybody loves Kamala, But there’s a difference between liking somebody and loving somebody. Forget about dating, do you want to marry them politically?”
All of the men I spoke to, and the men they spoke for, loved them some Kamala Harris, in theory. But whether they would vote for her or thought she could beat Trump was another issue.
“They like Kamala because she’s a black female,” state Rep. Terry Alexander said. He endorsed Sanders in 2016, and represents the I-95 “corridor of shame,” home to some of the poorest African-American schools in the country. According to him, Harris’ background, including her time as prosecutor, wasn’t hurting her with black men, it was something else.
“I don’t think we get that natural feeling from Kamala [or Cory Booker], even though she went to Howard. You don’t get that natural blackness; it doesn’t flow. You almost have to find it.”
Skeptical, I asked if he thought this lack of “natural” was just an excuse by some men to discount Harris because she’s a woman or because of her criminal justice record. Alexander was pretty clear that wasn’t the case
“She used to lock brothers up, she got a white husband and I don’t think those are as important to them [black men] as being natural,” he said. “They’d rather see somebody just be natural; they understand Kamala knows her job. Some of us had to go to jail, but that still doesn’t take away from them being natural and natural to the cause. Are you real or is this a political thing?” He asked rhetorically.
Jerusalem Demsas, South Carolina communications director for the Harris campaign, didn’t believe that Harris faced unique challenges with black men in South Carolina.
“I’ve not encountered black men who have this kind of skepticism about Harris,” she said. “We’re forcing voters to be pundits, we’re asking them questions about things that they don’t think about or believe.”
Demsas, who worked on Ben Jealous’ campaign to become Maryland’s governor, insisted there is no difference between Harris’ push to win black male voters in South Carolina and Jealous’ attempts to win black men in Maryland. Despite vast differences in education and employment of black men in those states.
“People aren’t watching MSNBC, they’re talking to their pastors and faith leaders and people in their community; they aren’t looking at electability or ideas that are outside the scope of their lived experience,” she said.
Since people aren’t watching MSNBC, I asked Bakari Sellers, a CNN analyst and Harris surrogate, how he thought the senator was doing with black men in South Carolina. Sellers, who ran for lieutenant governor in South Carolina in 2014, pulled no punches. He believes Biden’s support in the Palmetto State is soft, Cory Booker hasn’t caught fire and that Kamala Harris will win the primary. But he acknowledges challenges she’ll face in his home state.
“I tell everyone in the black male community we have a great deal of misogyny. That’s just a fact. If anybody thought that the misogyny that Hillary Clinton went through was over? Imagine what this black woman will go through. But a large part of this is that there are some voters who are gonna be like she married a white man, I can’t vote for a woman. These are the same people who wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Sellers, as an analyst and a former candidate hears the behind-the-scenes talk about Harris from Kiki’s Chicken & Waffles in downtown Columbia to the Green Rooms of 24-hour cable networks. It also gives him a freedom to speak others may not have.
“With black male voters there has been a caricature of Sen. Harris that she locks up black men; what she has to do is be honest and forthcoming and reconcile that record. And be full-throated, about the topic of criminal justice reform.”
From the Lowcountry to the Midlands to the Pee Dee, I talked to black men picking up their kids from the doctor’s office, running church errands and sitting in midtown offices. The more I spoke to them the less I thought Harris would have a problem exclusively with young working-class black men. According to these men, her biggest challenge would be older voters and, specifically, older black women.
“The word that came out of black woman’s mouths: that woman [Kamala] doesn’t have any business running for president. There are folks who don’t think that job is made for a woman. There’s a small segment with the older population older, Southern mindset of the roles of men and women,” said one local consultant.
Some older black women’s position on Harris in South Carolina can be epitomized by the feisty and engaging Phyllis Lloyd-Harris. Lloyd-Harris is the Democratic Party chair for Kershaw County, just east of Columbia and Richland counties, the most reliably blue part of the state. She knows South Carolina voters better than most and she’s always been candid about Harris.
“Her interracial marriage mostly comes up with women; that’s a woman thing,” said Lloyd-Harris, who has endorsed Joe Biden. “Most of our black men are arrested and incarcerated. When a black woman comes along and she marries a white man? What, a black man wasn’t good enough for her? Or she couldn’t find one that she likes?”
I pushed back a bit, questioning whether spouses mattered that much in the primary and whether older black women, who are a bulk of the voters, cared that much about Harris’ husband.
“The few events I’ve attended, [Harris’] spouse, we haven’t seen him and that makes people question,” she said before becoming somewhat wistful. “Michelle was all over South Carolina, and one of things that we saw was a man who loves his wife and a wife that loves her husband. We haven’t seen that. I don’t even know what Kamala’s husband looks like. Because we haven’t seen him.”
Ultimately, does Kamala Harris have a working-class black man problem? Perhaps my first assessment was a little too harsh, but if Sen. Harris’ relationship with black men was a Facebook status it would be “it’s complicated.” As many of the men I spoke to admitted, there are some black men that just won’t vote for Kamala Harris, they’ll find any excuse, her time as a prosecutor, her husband, even her name. They won’t admit it publicly, they’ll use words like ‘electability’ and ‘natural’ to cover their tracks. These are the hidden challenges that all black women candidates face, but especially Harris, running for the presidency. The attitudes that everybody knows and whispers about, and don’t show up on internal polls, but nonetheless frame your campaign strategy.
The clearest indicator of the reality of Harris’ challenges with working class black men is the recent behavior of her campaign. Regardless of what they say in public, they are addressing these issues head on. The senator recently gave a speech at the South Carolina NAACP explaining her criminal justice record; she’s deployed Charlamagne Tha God as a surrogate; and her husband Doug Emhoff will begin a more active role in the campaign later on this year.
For perhaps the first time in campaign history, black men in South Carolina need to be targeted, catered to and pandered to the way that white women, white men, farmers and stay-at-home moms in Iowa have been for decades. That means campaigning to men who may be sexist and prejudiced, but the reality is, Harris’ ability to win over these men will be the key to her political future. Winning campaigns isn’t about changing bigots or reforming sexists, it’s about winning votes on Election Day. We will find out in eight months if Kamala Harris is up to the challenge.