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The Importance of Black Voters, and the Stupidity of Ignoring Them

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Jim Clyburn makes a very good point in the Washington Post today:

"We keep talking as if it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter that Obama gets 92 percent of the black vote, because since he only got 35 percent of the white vote, he's in trouble," Clyburn said. "Well, Hillary Clinton only got 8 percent of the black vote. . . . It's almost saying black people don't matter. The only thing that matters is how white people respond. And that's what bothered me. I think I matter."

Clyburn is, unfortunately, spot on - and there's two reasons why the phenomenon he describes is such a problem.

First and foremost is the idea that black voters are, indeed, treated as less important than white voters. I would even take it a step further: black voters are not only considered unimportant, but are considered only as black voters and nothing else - a very subtly derogatory and dehumanizing characterization in that it implies African Americans are just one dimensional simpletons, rather than multi-dimensional humans.

For instance, though much of the African-American community is economically in the "working class," pundits and reporters use economic and other demographic distinctions only to describe white voters, while black voters are just "black voters" - as if the only issue they vote on is race. Chris Matthews gave us the best example of this when he publicly claimed there's some sort of difference between "regular people" and black people.

Of course, you might counter that in a general election, black voters have constituted about 12 percent of the total vote, while white voters have constituted about 79 percent of the total vote, and therefore when comparing demographic subsets, the black vote is less mathematically important than the white vote. Except, even that is a flawed way of looking at the electoral map. As Clyburn implies, if Democrats nominate a candidate like Clinton who is doing so poorly among black voters, there could be huge general election problems in a number of key swing states - problems that could create a general-election Race Chasm for the Democratic nominee.

Recall the Race Chasm graph that I published in In These Times a few weeks back. It shows how Hillary Clinton has been winning states whose populations are above 7 percent and below 17 percent black. If Democrats nominate a candidate who isn't well supported by the black community, and that community ends up not turning out to vote in the general election in strong numbers, those states in the Race Chasm like New Jersey and Pennsylvania could flip to the Republicans, and other states in the Race Chasm like Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Virginia could remain in the Republican column (NOTE: I'm in no way saying that Clinton cannot eventually rebuild her support among black voters in a general election, just like I don't believe Obama cannot strengthen his white support in a general election - all I'm saying is that Clinton's current weakness among black voters is at least as important a factor in this election as Obama's current weakness among some white demographics).

Put another way, the black vote - though only 12 percent of the total popular vote - can make the key difference in the key swing states, meaning Clyburn is absolutely right: It is not only subtly racist to generally downplay the importance of the black vote, but it is also mathematically absurd, because the black vote will likely be a decisive factor in the general election.

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