Jonathan Capehart | April 9, 2020
There are words and phrases used as shorthand in politics and journalism that are meant to paint an enormous picture in the mind of readers and voters. “Urban voters” is synonymous with African Americans. “Working-class voters,” “blue-collar voters,” “upper-middle-class voters” and “suburban voters” all conjure up the image of white Americans. And they are all wrong in 2020 America.
Actually, they have been wrong for decades, and blacks like me have long chafed at the designations for almost as long. Yes, we are an “urban” people thanks to the Great Migration that saw 6 million African Americans flee domestic terrorism in the South for cities in the North, the Midwest and the West. But we have always been, generally speaking, a “working-class” and “blue-collar” people considering our enslaved ancestors worked for free for nearly 250 years and then their progeny were forced into jobs that didn’t match their potential for another century.
Over time, after the end of segregation in the 1960s, those African Americans who could bolted the cities for better living conditions or better schools or both in the suburbs. They weren’t alone. Latino Americans and Asian Americans have done the same over the decades. And in later years, the high prices of gentrification would drive many more of them from cities to suburbs and elsewhere. The result has been a change in the electoral composition of the nation that we must talk about.
Both parties know that the path to the White House is paved through the suburbs. What they don’t recognize fully, especially some Democrats, is that those suburbs are no longer synonymous with white upper-middle-class voters. They look more like America. Therefore, it is imperative that Democrats stop thinking of voters of color, particularly African Americans, solely as “urban” voters, especially if they want to win.
What got me thinking about this in earnest was a direct message from my friend Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University in New York, reacting to my interview with Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is on a lot of lists as a potential vice-presidential candidate with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Decrying the voices within the party floating names meant to appeal to Democrats who voted for President Trump in 2016, Greer wrote: “Dems need to stop chasing this mysterious white working-class suburban voter. Black folks and POC are in the suburbs now [because] we got kicked out of cities.”
That last sentence about African Americans and people of color in the suburbs had me nodding vigorously in agreement. A December 2019 memo reporting on a series of focus groups with African Americans conducted by the center-left think tank Third Way and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies pointed out that “just 45 percent in the survey live in cities. A majority live in suburbs, small towns, or rural areas.”
Then I came across another Third Way report heralding a “new suburban majority” that puts even more data behind Greer’s and my assertion. Third Way’s Ryan Pougiales points out: “Forty-eight percent of all voters nationwide came from suburban counties in the last presidential election. By comparison, 28% of voters came from urban counties and 24% from small-town and rural counties.” Urban, suburban and rural county designations are based on the National Center for Health Statistics’ urban-rural classification system. Pougiales also highlighted that “According to an analysis from the progressive data firm Catalist, more than half of voters of color live in suburban areas.”
A deeper dive into the data first presented in Catalist’s analysis, written by Yair Ghitza, shows that “suburban non-white” voters made up 13 percent of the electorate in the 2018 midterm elections while “urban non-white” voters were just nine percent. What’s even more interesting is the Democratic vote margin with “suburban non-white” voters during midterm election years. Compared with presidential election years, Democratic voter participation notoriously plummets like a barrel over Niagara Falls during the midterms. For instance, Democrats’ winning margin among “suburban non-white” voters shrank from 64 percentage points in 2012 to 47 points in 2014. But in the 2018 midterms, Democrats maintained a winning margin of 61 percentage points, compared with 63 points in 2016. Sure, this is less than the margin among “urban non-white” voters, but the latter group is a smaller piece of the electorate. But both urban and suburban non-white voters were motivated by the Trump presidency to go to the polls at presidential-election-year levels.
When I mentioned Greer’s comment (and my agreement with it) to Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, she pushed back on the either-or gambit that plagues our politics when it comes to the suburbs and African American voters.
“I’m not sure I agree with your friend about giving up on white suburban voters (especially women) as they contributed to the 2018 wins in a big way (i.e. the Catalist analysis showed more than 89% of the change in favor of Dems from 2016 to 2018 was from voters that flipped, not additional turnout),” Erickson wrote in an email. The flip was from Trump for president in 2016 to Democrats for congressional seats in 2018.
“When we say (and it’s true) that the suburbs are key to Dems winning, that’s not synonymous with white people. And conversely, when others argue that black voters are the real key, but then assume that is synonymous with urban turnout, those folks are wrong as well,” Erickson continued in her response. “The suburbs are key. Black people are key. And those two statements are not in opposition to each other: More people of color now vote in the suburbs than in urban areas. It’s lazy and wrong both for the folks who use suburbs to mean ‘white suburbs’ and those who use people of color to mean ‘urban voters.’ And we’ve gotta be smarter than both those old tropes to beat Trump.”