In Key Cities, Activists Are Mobilizing Black Voters Biden Isn’t

In Key Cities, Activists Are Mobilizing Black Voters Biden Isn’t

In Key Cities, Activists Are Mobilizing Black Voters Biden Isn’t

According to canvassers in battleground states, the Democratic Party hasn’t done enough to reach out to the very constituency it relies on most.


Detroit may be a car capital, but Wendy Caldwell-Liddell wants to meet at the bus station. The 29-year-old founder of Mobilize Detroit canvasses there regularly, because she knows she’s likely to meet people mainstream Democrats are failing to reach—people who have to go to work, or take care of their children, and are using a public service to get there. People, in her words, who are “on a mission.”

That would be a good description of Caldwell-Liddell herself. A 29-year-old urban planner and grant-writing consultant by trade, as well as a mother of two, she doesn’t have a lot of time to spare. Yet, since August, she’s been coming to the Rosa Parks Transit Center and other local hubs every week in an attempt to mobilize Detroit voters. It wasn’t easy at first.

“A lot of people [are] just completely uninterested in choosing between Trump and Biden, uninterested in the national elections just as a whole,” she told me in early October. But she found her stride when she set the presidential election aside, and began approaching people about local issues instead: police surveillance, housing and gentrification, and water shutoffs, to name a few.

“A lot of people out here tell me, ‘I have never voted before,’ but they hear the local issues I’m talking about, and that makes them want to register,” she said.

The experience has also crystallized her frustration with Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who have come to Detroit not to talk—and above all listen—to marginalized would-be voters, but to give speeches to “people who already support them.”

“What does that do for people out here at the bus stops?” she asks.

In the Motor City, as in many others, those who don’t own a car are disproportionately Black and working class. Many of those Caldwell-Liddell talks to are preoccupied by the cost of car insurance, or inadequate bus service, or underfunded schools.

“Those same folks may feel so apathetic…about the oppression that they deal with every single day, that no, going out to the polls is not your first priority,” she said. Particularly when the candidates on offer are doing so little to address their day-to-day concerns.

Still, little by little, Caldwell-Liddell is gaining ground. By focusing on local issues, she said, Mobilize Detroit has been able to convince reluctant voters that they “can send a real big ripple effect. And yes, inadvertently, we are probably getting people who will vote for Biden to the polls.”

That could have a major ripple effect nationally, too. In Detroit, which is nearly 80 percent Black, some 41,000 fewer voters showed up to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, while nearly 3,000 voted for a third party or left the presidential choice blank. At the same time, turnout in predominantly white, rural Michigan counties increased. The combination was enough to cost Hillary Clinton her slim lead in the state, allowing Donald Trump to crack the “blue wall” with a margin of just 10,700 votes.

This year, with expanded absentee voting and a surge in election interest, overall turnout looks set to increase dramatically nationwide. That includes in Michigan, where Democratic-leaning areas, including Wayne County (anchored by Detroit), have so far seen the highest number of early ballots returned.

That combination does not bode well for Trump. But there’s less than a week to go—and, of course, Election Day itself, when Republicans are expecting a surge in turnout of their own.

For Nicole Small, many aspects of this year’s election feel eerily reminiscent of 2016. Small, 34, was born and raised in Detroit and currently serves as vice chair of the city’s Charter Commission. She still lives on the city’s Northwest Side, not far from where Biden and Trump campaign offices sit just a few blocks apart.

The GOP outpost in itself is another novelty since 2016. Dubbed the “Black Voices Community Center,” it’s a testament to the Trump campaign’s renewed pitch to Black voters, and Small calls it “scary” to see.

“The people they have working in the office are actually from Detroit,” she said. “They’re Black Detroiters. And they’re active voters.”

Caldwell-Liddell, too, has seen signs that Trump is peeling at least a small share of prospective Black voters away from the Democrats. She estimates that 10 percent of those she’s canvassed have told her they plan to vote for Trump, with some crediting him for the expanded unemployment benefits they received under the CARES Act. (For those who don’t follow the ins and outs of Capitol Hill, she said, it was less obvious that Democrats won those benefits than that Trump signed them into law.)

She’s confident that she’s convinced at least a few to change their minds. Yet she says it’s been despite, rather than thanks to, the reputation of the Democratic standard-bearer.

Small, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, likewise regrets that the party once again settled on a business-as-usual candidate this year.

“Bernie has his issues, too, with really touching Black voters,” she said. But the 79-year-old socialist maintains a young, energized base, she added, which Biden distinctly lacks.

Survey data compiled by the Poor People’s Campaign has shown that the most common reason people give for not voting is that they are “disillusioned with their voting prospects”: They don’t like the candidates or their platforms, aren’t interested, or feel that their vote won’t change things. Those attitudes spiked in 2016, accounting for some 40 percent of all nonvoters. (The next most common reason nonvoters gave was that they were too busy.)

Pew analysis of Census surveys shows that the sharpest drop in turnout in 2016 was among Black voters—something not seen in 20 years. Michael Dawson, political scientist at the University of Chicago, says this reflected a wide range of factors, including voter suppression, active disinformation campaigns from a variety of anti-Democratic interests, and, of course, Barack Obama’s absence from the ticket. But he singles out one factor in particular: the Clinton campaign’s failure to actively engage Black voters.

“As a political scientist we know that the way you turn people out is, [if not] knocking physically on doors, certainly mobilizing them, contacting them, putting in the work,” Dawson told me. “The Clinton campaign wasn’t doing that in the Black community, and that was an extraordinarily dumb strategic error.”

Mobilization is especially key when it comes to Black working-class voters, Dawson said. Nationally, low-income voters are consistently less likely to vote than their higher-income counterparts: The gap stood at nearly 22 percent in 2016, according to the Poor People’s Campaign. In Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Black eligible voters are more likely to be low-income or poor than in almost any other swing state, that gap is all the more vital for candidates to bridge.

Bernie Sanders staked his “political revolution” on precisely such a strategy, perhaps even more explicitly this year than in 2016. But it didn’t work. Sanders’s defeat in Michigan, a state he won in 2016, all but sealed the Democratic nomination for Biden.

The former vice president, for his part, has repeatedly presented Black voters as his “firewall,” while emphasizing a message of bipartisanship designed to win back the elusive white swing voter. Yet, as political scientists David C. Barker and Sam Fulwood III have argued, this rhetoric misses the “real ‘swing voters’”: the predominantly young people of color who don’t see their interests represented by either party. What would it take for progressives to win back their trust?

Milwaukee, another former Midwestern powerhouse gutted by deindustrialization, poses the question in especially stark terms. Plans to host the Democratic National Convention there this summer were scuttled by the pandemic. But in recent months, the city has been the site of steady protests, especially for Black lives and the Fight for $15, and sometimes linking the two.

The vibrancy of the protests reflects a harsh backdrop. Milwaukee has repeatedly been ranked the most segregated metropolitan area in the country, with historian Marc V. Levine of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee calling it “the epitome of a 21st century racial regime.”

One ZIP code in particular has come to symbolize these inequities: 53206, which bounds about three square miles on the city’s majority-Black North Side. As of 2018, nearly half of the ZIP code’s residents lived below the poverty line. Unemployment is high, but so is the share of working poor: according to Levine, nearly one in five of the ZIP code’s employed residents earned wages that put them below the federal poverty line in 2018, compared to about one in 20 nationwide. And that was when the economy was at a peak—well before Covid-19 hit.

Upper Cutz barbershop sits just on the edge of 53206, opposite an empty lot and, behind that, the remains of a linen plant that closed in 2005 after operating in the neighborhood for almost 75 years. Midway down the block, a colorful sign entreats, “Let your voice be heard: Vote Nov. 3.”

But that call rings hollow with the barbers I spoke to at Upper Cutz, just as it did when The New York Times visited in 2016. A few days after Trump’s election, several people at Upper Cutz and around the neighborhood told the paper they hadn’t voted, and didn’t regret it. Altogether, their district saw Milwaukee’s largest drop in turnout that year since 2012, part of a trend that—as in Michigan—contributed to Trump’s knife-edge win in the state.

“Politicians don’t come through here until it’s voting time,” barber Jahn “Justice B” Toney told me when I visited in early October. The message is clear: “They’re not really trying to help us. They’re just trying to help themselves.”

When it comes to this year’s candidates, his coworker is even more cutting.

“The two zombies?” he asks, with a laugh.

It’s impossible to talk about turnout in Wisconsin, of course, without talking about voter suppression. The 2016 election was the first major poll to be conducted under the state’s voter ID law, passed by Republican former governor Scott Walker. As in other states, the law played a well-documented role in keeping Black, low-income, and generally Democratic-leaning voters away from the polls. One survey suggests that the ID requirement alone could have deterred up to 45,000 votes—roughly the number Trump won by.

Yet the vast majority of nonvoting Milwaukeeans who responded to that survey did not cite ID as an obstacle. Instead, as writer Malaika Jabali has pointed out, a strong plurality of them gave the same reason for not voting as their counterparts nationwide: They didn’t like the candidates or just weren’t interested. For Jabali, it’s “evidence that disillusionment is a far more significant factor than voter suppression in deflating turnout among voters of color.”

“It’s like we’re asking our masters to give us more scraps,” Toney told me. “I’m tired of that.”

I asked if anything had changed since 2016, when he told the Times he wrote in Sanders.

“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “It’s actually gotten worse in the last four years.” With the pandemic and the spike in gun violence, his coworker added, this year has been especially bad. But the bottom line, for Toney, is that it’s “nothing different than what we’ve been dealing throughout the history of the United States of America.”

The 49-year-old barber said he’s voted consistently since Obama first ran in 2008, including in local elections, and plans to again this year. But he hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for, and anyway, he’s not convinced it will change anything.

“The questions you’re asking me—I’m giving the same answers I gave 10 years ago, when Barack was running,” he said. “The system is designed to keep our community the way it is.”

Tatiana Washington, 19, is one of the young Milwaukeeans working to change that system. Along with local organizations including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) and Citizen Action Wisconsin, she’s been working year-round to bridge the energy and radical politics of the movement for Black lives with the push to get out the vote.

For her, the connection between issues like policing and gun violence—and, in turn, to the ballot box—is not abstract.

“In 2017, I lost my aunt to gun violence. Her husband shot and killed her. He was actually a police officer, and was able to use his work-issued gun to murder my aunt,” she said.

Washington says such violence is sadly “normalized” in Milwaukee. For her, though, it was a call to action. She got involved with anti–gun violence groups soon after her aunt’s murder, and now serves as state policy associate for March for Our Lives, the most prominent national youth group organizing around the issue, as well as executive director of the Black feminist youth group 50 Miles More.

“Plain and simple, police violence is gun violence,” she said. And ending those forms of violence means addressing their root causes—from education, to the criminal justice system, to “making sure kids have somewhere to go home where they feel safe.”

This year will mark Washington’s first presidential election, and she’s adamant that her generation has a decisive role to play at the ballot box.

“Especially here in Wisconsin, Gen Z…can make or break who ends up winning, and this is a battleground state,” she said. “So really us as young people, doing what we can to make sure other young people show out for the polls, and getting out the vote, is super-duper important.”

She said social media has been key to that effort, and judging from her peers online, she’s confident that Milwaukeeans are more mobilized than they were four years ago. She wouldn’t say who she planned to vote for, though.

Dawson, the political scientist, is optimistic that resurgent, Black-led social movements will contribute at least indirectly to defeating Trump at the polls.

“Activists have realized that down-ballot voting matters,” he said, and “mobilizing people around progressive local issues will help the general cause at the national level as well.”

There’s been some evidence of that down-ballot momentum in and around Detroit, where a surge in turnout in the 2018 midterms powered Rashida Tlaib to Congress from the third-poorest district in the country. This August, she won her reelection primary with even greater turnout—in the middle of a pandemic—buoying hopes that the political revolution is far from over.

Mobilize Detroit’s Caldwell-Liddell stresses that her efforts are geared toward not just the presidential contest this November but also ballot initiatives, next year’s city council races, and beyond.

“This is a time that we start making the decision on who represents us,” she tells would-be voters. “When you start framing the conversations like that, people are flying into our movement in droves.”

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