Translating Black voters’ political knowledge into political power
Yesterday, the Black Census Project released its report on what founder Alicia Garza describes as “the largest independent survey of black people ever conducted in the United States.”
Garza wrote in yesterday’s New York Times: “Candidates and their campaigns are comfortable talking at black people, but few want to talk to us. This limits our ability to influence their decisions and policies.”
The Black Census Project reached over 31,000 participants in all 50 states. There are two core takeaways from the responses. The first is that Black voters’ high rates of participation in elections (despite widespread voter suppression efforts) and other forms of mobilization and their, thus far, steadfast support for the Democratic Party mean they play a critical role in determining election outcomes. The second is a widespread belief among the census participants that politicians simply do not care about the needs of Black voters. Garza writes, “The most common response among people who were politically engaged was that no politician or pollster has ever asked them what their lives were like.”
The results also confirm what is already known but make it impossible to ignore: Concern about violence and crime coexisted with concerns about violent, unaccountable policing, demonstrating how little policing has delivered in terms of a sense of safety for tens of thousands of Black participants.
The negative views of police are, in large part, based on direct and often recent experience. “More than half (55 percent) of respondents have personally had a negative interaction with the police at some point, and 28 percent have had at least one negative interaction in the last 6 months. More than a third (38 percent) of Black Census respondents had their first negative interaction with the police before the age of 18. Younger respondents are also more likely to report recent negative police interactions, with 38 percent describing a negative encounter with police in the last 6 months.”
These concerns about safety and concerns about police violence and impunity are also reflected in a recent synthesis of the results of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Between January and April of this year, Pew conducted a survey of opinions about the state of race relations in the U.S. Last week, John Gramlich of Pew synthesized those responses with those from other surveys Pew conducted since 2016 to show how Black Americans have a substantially different experience and view of the criminal legal system from white Americans. (Gramlich’s synthesis did not include information on the views of Latinx people, Asian Americans, or other groups.)
Black survey respondents were both much more likely to be worried about violent crime and gun violence and, as a whole, had far more negative feelings about the police than white adults surveyed. Black respondents were five times more likely to say they had been the victims of racial profiling by the police.
These differences in responses by race echoed those from a 2016 survey. On numerous indicators of satisfaction with the police—use of force, equal treatment of different racial and ethnic groups, police accountability, and protecting people from time—Black respondents were around 40 percent less likely to express positive opinions.
In this year’s survey, 87 percent of Black adults said they believed Black people were treated less fairly by the criminal legal system than whites, compared to just over 60 percent of white adults.
What is the relationship between the experience of police oppression and political knowledge and power? In 2014, a Yale law student founded the Portals Project to, as Mimi Kirk put it in a piece for City Lab, “connect people who would otherwise never meet.” “Portals”—shipping containers containing immersive technology that allowed people in different cities to occupy the same virtual space and talk as if in the same room—were placed in selected locations.
Eventually, two researchers came up with a way to use the project to facilitate conversations about policing and incarceration between people of color in eleven different neighborhoods in five cities—Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Newark, New Jersey. The result was nearly a thousand conversations about policing.
Researchers looked at the 233 conversations that were between Black participants, to assess “political knowledge” in heavily policed communities. They found the “dominant message” of scholarship on political knowledge—that voters have “too little knowledge, too much power”—to not be true of the people whose conversations they analyzed. Instead, participants had “widespread, detailed knowledge about policing and government authorities more generally.” They did not seek this knowledge; it was “imposed on them by the state through involuntary encounters with police and other criminal justice institutions.” And this knowledge of institutions did not amplify the power of its holders. Instead, it simply enabled them to distance themselves from those same institutions.
The researchers concluded: “Our findings suggest that the claims of existing research get it exactly backwards. Residents of highly policed communities have too much knowledge, too little power.”
The Black Census Project is but one of many efforts to change this, to convert knowledge about, and experience with, political institutions, including the police, into political power.