Australia

Trump says he's done the most for black Americans since Lincoln. But many will still vote Democrat

US citizen Jasmine Martin moved to Perth to play professional basketball. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

For both the Democrats and the Republicans, black votes matter. Here's how one family has felt watching the US presidential race playing out this year, and what past elections have taught us.

Jasmine Martin left her home in New Jersey nearly four years ago to move halfway across the world to Perth in Western Australia. 

The 27-year-old was embarking on a life-long dream to play professional basketball overseas, after signing a contract to play in WA’s State Basketball League.

She has spoken with her family in New Jersey just about every day since, keeping up to date with the news at home during a turbulent four years in American politics.   

“Most of [Donald] Trump’s presidency, I’ve actually lived in Australia. I left about a month after he was elected,” she tells SBS News.

Jasmine Martin
Jasmine came to Australia to play professional basketball and studies at Perth Bible College.

“I try not to ignore things that are going on back home, but some days it’s just too much. It can get very overwhelming. Especially with the pandemic, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know whether I should stay or go home.”

Ms Martin usually returns home to visit the US at least once a year but had to cancel multiple trips in 2020 due to COVID-19. But even in Perth, she has felt the shockwaves of both COVID-19's impact on the US and one of its other biggest talking points this year; the protests following the death of African American man George Floyd.

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In June, Ms Martin was among the speakers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Perth, the first to be held in Australia.

“It’s been interesting to watch the divide of in the US and hearing the perspectives of people from countries around the world, asking ‘what is going on?’ and all I can say is ‘I have no idea’,” she says.

“Honestly, it's embarrassing. You don’t know what’s going on day to day in America.”

It's embarrassing. You don’t know what’s going on day to day in America.

- Jasmine Martin

Back in New Jersey, Jasmine’s father supports her activism and involvement with Black Lives Matter in Australia.

“Especially after George Floyd’s murder, we as African Americans were extremely angry," Michael Martin Sr, 59, says. I’ve been in situations when I was in college, where police pulled out guns for no reason, other than there were four black men in a car.” 

Jasmine Martin with her father Michael.
Jasmine Martin with her father Michael.
Supplied

For nearly 30 years, Mr Martin has operated a construction consultancy business, specialising in building projects for the US government. During his regular road trips across state lines, he says he has seen the changing nature of American political discourse.

“Just the other day, I had to go look at a couple of projects in Western Pennsylvania. In some of those areas, I saw more Confederate flags and Trump flags, which to me are becoming synonymous. It’s the type of thing that before, you would only see in the Deep South,” he says.  

“[Mr Trump] has emboldened some of these folks to do or say whatever they want. It’s not civil. Before where people held different political views they could agree to disagree, now it's, 'I’m for Trump, F-you if you don’t like it.”

While the Martins don’t belong to any political party, both father and daughter say they will be voting for Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

As a business owner, Mr Martin says he rejects Mr Trump’s claim that African Americans have been better off under his presidency.

“If you look at the way the economy was turning around at the end of Barrack Obama’s term, it was on the way up anyway. He’s taking credit for trends that were already happening,” he says. “Unfortunately, this president says things that are just plainly untrue”.

The African American vote

While Mr Martin gives credit to the former administration, the unemployment rate for African Americans did reach an all-time low under Mr Trump of just 5.5 per cent before coronavirus hit.

Mr Trump claims to have done more for black Americans than any US president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.

In his first term, Mr Trump also signed into law the Criminal Justice Reform Bill, a bipartisan effort to reform the US prison system through early release and rehabilitation programs for inmates. It was seen among Republicans as a way of boosting his support among black voters, who regard justice reform as a high priority election issue.

But African Americans have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that black Americans are 2.6 times more likely to contract the virus and twice as likely to die from it.

The economic impact of the pandemic has hit lower-wage and working-class Americans hardest too, a group that includes many African Americans.

Recent polling suggests Mr Trump will do no better among African American voters in 2020 than he did in 2016, when only eight per cent of black voters supported him, compared with 88 per cent for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Voter turnout

Support for Mr Trump among black voters is neither significantly better nor worse than other recent Republican presidential candidate. Since around the 1960s, African Americans have overwhelmingly voted Democrat, with Republicans securing only around 10 per cent of black votes in recent elections.

But the question is not which candidate a majority of African American voters will support (it will be Mr Biden) but how many black voters in total will cast a vote.

Unrest across the US took place following the death of George Floyd.
Unrest across the US took place following the death of George Floyd.
AAP

For two decades until the last election, the turnout of African American voters in presidential elections had steadily increased.

In 2012, it reached an all-time high of 66.6 per cent, where voting rates among black voters actually surpassed that of white voters for the first time in history.

But support for Barrack Obama’s re-election bid in 2012 proved to be something of a high-water mark.

At the next election in 2016, the black voter turnout at a presidential election declined for the first time in 20 years, dropping seven percentage points to 59.6 per cent, with 765,000 fewer African American voters casting a ballot. 

That decline in part doomed Mrs Clinton’s bid for the White House, with studies showing she would have easily won key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan - and thus the presidency - had her support among black voters been greater.

“Since World War Two, except for Lyndon B. Johnson, no Democrat has won the presidency without the black vote. That is to say, no Democrat besides Johnson has won the white vote,” chair of political science at Howard University in Washington D.C. Dr Lorenzo Morris says.

“In fact, if you remove the black vote from the 2012 election, then Obama lost to [Republican candidate] Mitt Romney, not just by a little bit, but by a landslide”.

Supporters of Donald Trump and a Black Lives Matter supporter in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Supporters of Donald Trump and a Black Lives Matter supporter in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

While headlines in 2020 have been dominated by Black Lives Matter protests since the murder of Mr Floyd, there’s no guarantee it will translate into action at the polls.

“The problem with Black Lives Matter is that the actual participatory level of young people has never been that dramatic. When Obama won, the black youth vote went up, but the numbers aren’t that dramatic,” Dr Morris says.

Mrs Clinton’s failure to inspire African American voters at the level of America’s first black president is understandable, but it also carries an important lesson: that the black vote is not to be taken for granted.

Conservative African American commentator Candace Owens has started a ‘BLEXIT’ movement, aimed at encouraging more African Americans to abandon the Democrats and vote Republican.

Meanwhile, success for Mr Biden will mean returning the African American voter turnout to pre-2016 positive territory.  

It’s not guaranteed. Mr Biden enjoys support from older African Americans, but that enthusiasm drops among younger voters, especially young black males without a college education.

Making it count

Black votes will matter in 2020, especially in five to 10 battleground states that will again decide the outcome of the election. And changing demographics in states that were once considered red, Republican strongholds could turn Democrat blue, or at least purple.

Once viewed as white, rural and conservative, Georgia, North Carolina and even Texas are looming as potential states where the votes of African Americans could swing the result.

“If you look at the states that are likely to change, the black population in North Carolina is about 23 per cent. Georgia has a population that is about 33 per cent black. In South Carolina, that's around 23 per cent,” Dr Morris says.

“The vote of African Americans is likely to have an impact that is significant, but turnout is important.”

The vote of African Americans is likely to have an impact that is significant, but turnout is important.

- Dr Lorenzo Morris

But there are some concerns tens of thousands of African American voters could be deterred or prohibited from voting.

While the US Congress passed laws in 1870 that effectively gave African American men the right to vote, a legacy of racism and restrictive policies meant that right couldn’t be fully exercised.

Donald Trump received eight per cent of the votes from African Americans in 2016.
Donald Trump received eight per cent of the votes from African Americans in 2016.
(The New York Times)

“Voter suppression used to be violent. You could be threatened with violence from the Ku Klux Klan if you grew up in the South. In the North, you could have other kinds of threats,” Dr Morris says.

“Often, the votes were simply not counted. There were literacy tests, which were absurd. People had to memorise pages and pages of the constitution and not get a word wrong. [Black people] were forced to do major studying just to vote”.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act aimed to remove those legal barriers and restraints but many civil liberties groups say voter suppression is an ongoing problem in American democracy.

“Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans - particularly black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities - to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. These measures include cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls,” the American Civil Liberties Union says.

'I have some trepidation'

The increasingly vitriolic nature of political discourse in America has left some fearing intimidation and political violence on election day. 

Shelley Winters is an African American community advocate from Raleigh, North Carolina.

In May, around a dozen armed protesters marched through the city’s downtown area, carrying weapons and flags to protest against COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.  

Ms Winters says the presence of armed militia groups could deter some African American voters from attending polling stations on 3 November.

Supporters of Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Supporters of Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris in Raleigh, North Carolina.
AFP

“It feels for the first time in my life … it's legal to vote, but there are caveats, there are hurdles that we’ve not experienced since 1965 with the Voting Rights Act,” she says.

“For the first time, I have some trepidation about going to vote because who else is going to be there? There is an intimidation factor that no one is saying anything about it.

“These are the conversations that I’m having with my community, it’s about making a plan to actually go to the polls safely, and get out of there.”

Back in Perth, Ms Martin is preparing to vote online via an absentee ballot.

She hopes that once the result of the election is known, there will be a return to predictability and civility in US politics.

Jasmine Martin is planning to return to the US.
Jasmine Martin is planning to return to the US.
Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

“What is at stake are the future leaders. What they’re seeing now, and what they will think is acceptable and they will think is ok. Right versus wrong,” she says.  

“A lot of people have the opportunity to use their voice to vote and make a change for our future. I hope people go out and vote, use that voice and that platform, because I don’t want to see another four years of what’s been happening. Especially this last six or seven months.”

Whatever the outcome, Jasmine hopes to move back to the US in 2021.

“I left one America and I have no idea what I’m going back to,” she says.

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