Political Cynicism and the Black Vote

By Taylor, Erica C. | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview
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Political Cynicism and the Black Vote


Taylor, Erica C., Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


African American political behavior is an understudied dimension of the American electorate. In some ways, Black voting behavior and voting frequency parallel mainstream trends, but there are notable differences. These differences are due largely to socioeconomic factors and the troubled history of Blacks in America. The continued inequality among many aspects of Black society, as compared to mainstream society, causes many African Americans to be cynical of American politics and the political system. This article, which uses the terms African American and Black interchangeably, analyzes a regression model that suggests cynicism--and specifically political alienation--may positively affect African American voting behavior. In other words, where there are higher cynical attitudes among Black voters, there is also higher African American voter turnout. The results show a distinct need for innovative efforts to motivate the Black vote.

Voting frequency in America has declined over time, and numerous studies have examined the factors affecting voter turnout. These studies have outlined several variables impacting turnout including socioeconomic deterrents, apathy, and various psychological deterrents such as voter intimidation and the belief that one vote does not make a difference. The same studies define political participation by many components. Though these studies identify a lack of interest in political participation among Americans generally, within the overall decline in American voting frequency is a tendency for an even greater drop-off in African American or Black voter turnout (this article uses the terms African American and Black interchangeably). Historic race relations challenges in the United States along with current racial inequality are likely factors in creating low Black voter turnout.

Historically, tense race relations in the United States have adversely affected African American voter turnout. After the Civil War, relationships between Blacks and Whites were strained in ways that had direct political effects. W.E.B. Du Bois (2003, 42), author of The Souls of Black Folk, originally written in 1903, described the effects of societal ills on Black society as "1. [t]he disfranchisement of the Negro, and 2. [t]he legal creation of distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro." Du Bois believed Whites should grant equal rights to Blacks and accept a new and integrated society. For Blacks, he said, "black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate ... by every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget" (Du Bois 2003, 47). Du Bois wanted Blacks to demand what America's Founding Fathers deemed "unalienable" rights: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Du Bois 1903, 47). Du Bois's reflections on Black political participation demonstrate his idealistic view of how African Americans should cooperatively be enthusiastic about taking part in the political process.

African Americans' forced fight for equality has been long, complicated, and stressed. Strained relationships with mainstream politics have molded Black political behaviors. The teachings of Du Bois--compressed with those of many other Black intellectuals, activists, pragmatics, and organizers--fueled the civil rights movement and the passing of laws that enhanced racial equality such as the Voting Rights Act. These accomplishments, though necessary, are not sufficient to deduce that full racial equality now exists in America. Some patterns still plague the American electorate. A key racial difference between the political activism of the 1960s and today is the trend in African American voting behavior. Specifically, where African American voters perceive there to be a continuous battle for equality they are driven to vote with greater frequency than in situations where African American voters perceive equality to have been achieved.

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