‘Black support for Trump increases as the black population of a neighborhood decreases.’ Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Black Americans are not a monolithic group so stop treating us like one

America’s black population includes many differences based on geography, gender and a host of other factors


Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech featured a series of cameo appearances by black Americans. Similar to his Super Bowl ad, Trump aimed to signal to black people that he cares about education and addiction in inner cities, the military service of black Americans and the plight of returning citizens trying to find work in an economy that is not kind to black people or ex-felons. Despite some people framing Trump’s address as a black exploitation film, particularly by giving out a scholarship to a black child in Philadelphia who already attends a high-quality charter school, awarding the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, and not acknowledging the cancer diagnosis of the civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, Trump attempted to do what political pundits and voting polls often do not – treat black people as the heterogeneous group that they are who have different experiences and care about a series of important policy issues.

As I’ve written before, black Americans vote on par or higher than their state population. They represent a significant share of Democratic voters, especially in states like South Carolina (nearly 60%). Despite representing this large voting bloc, polls such as Quinnipiac continue to frame black Americans as a monolithic group, while disaggregating white people by age, political identification and education.

I argue it is important to see the heterogeneity of black Americans. Others agree. Professor Eddie Glaude Jr said: “We have to be more nuanced in how we talk about black voters. I would love to see the breakdown of the Q poll. Age. Class. Etc.” Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith said, “I’ve examined the newest Quinnipiac poll very thoroughly … and unfortunately, it does not break down black voters by age, class, education, or even gender. Just ‘Black.’ White respondents receive more nuanced treatment in the poll.” This is puzzling considering black people (84%) report being just as likely as white people to pay a lot or some attention to the 2020 election.

Though black Americans represent only 13.4% of the population, the more than 40 million of us represent a diverse array of backgrounds and political attitudes. Our votes will be on full display in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday in states with high black populations such as Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and California (particularly in Oakland and the southern part of the state).

So, what are the key demographic factors that should be focused on when addressing black American voters?

First, black Americans comprise many ethnicities and ancestral nationalities. Immigrants represent roughly 10% of black people in the US and a substantial percentage of Latinos identify as black. Second, geography matters. Similar to the end of slavery and Jim Crow, black people are concentrated most in the south, mid-Atlantic and select cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York City.

Third, gender is different for blacks than the general population. There are nearly 5% more black women relative to black men, while women outnumber men by about 1.6% generally. Fourth, education matters and intersects with gender. About 25% of black women who are 25 years of age or older have a graduate or bachelor’s degree (compared with only 18% of black men). There are important educational differences among cities as well. While over 30% of black Americans in some cities have a bachelor’s degree or higher (Washington DC, Austin, Raleigh, Durham and San Francisco), other cities have black populations where less than 20% are college-educated (Milwaukee, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Charleston, St Louis and Detroit).

These differences among black Americans manifest within and across cities. The most affluent black metropolitan areas, Washington DC and Atlanta, feature some of the highest forms of income inequality. Furthermore, black people are least concentrated in the highest-growth geographies. Cities like Baltimore, Detroit and St Louis are expected to continue losing jobs. It should be no surprise that these cities were part of the Great Migration north as black people searched for better work opportunities outside of the south and fled the potential of lynching. Hampered by race riots and redlining, these cities have struggled to attract commerce. As some of the largest state employers, universities in these areas need to continue to provide opportunities for the communities they have historically neglected and used as research guinea pigs. But, all of these areas have historically black colleges that should receive the same investments as the predominantly white universities down the street.

Additionally, racial composition of neighborhoods within cities plays a role in the voting attitudes of black Americans. Black support for Trump increases as the black population of a neighborhood decreases. Though some of it may be about choice related to views about religiosity, abortion and smaller government, it is often about political attitudes being influenced by the conversations that people have daily, the news channel that is on at work or the gym, and the prominent role that geography plays in social media algorithms. Trump understands the role that social media played in the 2016 election so he isn’t just signaling to whites in suburbia, he is also signaling to blacks.

Trump also touts low unemployment for blacks. However, unemployment reversed and decreased most dramatically under President Obama. Nonetheless, black Americans are mostly concentrated in low-wage jobs that have poor benefits. Black people represent roughly 16% of laborers and food service and janitorial staff. College-educated blacks have the most college debt of any racial group. This is why Trump rolling back policies that reduce students’ ability to receive subsidized loans is important to black people.

Despite black Americans having some of the biggest increases in business ownership, they are unable to access economic and social capital to thrive and create jobs. This is why investment in black small businesses is so key for federal, state and local policymakers. Black Americans have the ideas, work ethic and resiliency to make businesses successful. What they need are the same investments and access to capital that white small businesses receive.

Concerns about the racial wealth gap are deeply embedded in the Quinnipiac Poll. Blacks (62%) more than any other voting group are most likely to report wanting a candidate that shares their views versus being most electable (31%). More than any other voting group, blacks (63%) are most likely to report that the economy is poor or not so good, most likely to report being dissatisfied (44%) with the way things are going for them financially, and most likely to report being financially worse off (41%) than in 2016.

In discussions with family members, friends, fraternity members, colleagues and fellow church members, they all have a variety of concerns. Black Americans’ linked fate often mutes our ability to selfishly only think about ourselves. However, whether blacks are more community-oriented or individually-oriented may dictate their political attitudes. Black Americans are not only concerned with criminal justice reform and voter disenfranchisement, they are worried about some blacks deciding not to vote because they don’t have a candidate who speaks to their economic concerns, as I’ve written about before.

So maybe instead of engaging in identity politics, church pop-ups and offbeat dances, political candidates should focus on speaking to the real policy concerns of all Black Americans instead of a so-called ideal type. I definitely know that handing out cash to black people who want equitable education, high-quality jobs with healthcare benefits, and neighborhood infrastructure won’t work. But, if you are going to view blacks as a monolith, then deal with the Goliath that links us – structural racism.