By: - October 14, 2020 8:18 am

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist encourages Black men to vote on Oct. 10 in Detroit | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Eric Brown is a vote that Joe Biden would want, and perhaps desperately needs, if he is to become the 46th president of the United States.

But the 56-year-old Canton resident, an African-American labor relations specialist for an automotive supplier, did not cast a vote for the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee.

For Brown, it came down to this.

Eric Brown | Eastern Michigan University

“One party not caring enough to earn my vote [Republicans]; the other party taking my vote for granted,” he said. “The Democrats take my vote for granted.”  

Brown is the type of person the Democratic Party has traditionally counted on for decades, as African Americans have been a solid — and crucial — voting bloc. He grew up on Detroit’s historic lower east side and attended Miller Middle High School, an institution where Democrat Charles C. Diggs Jr., the first African American to serve in the U.S. House, attended decades before. 

Along with Black attorneys Harold Bledsoe and Joseph Craigen, Diggs’ father, Charles Diggs Sr., led the way in encouraging thousands of Blacks in Michigan to bolt from the Republican Party in the 1930s and back Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal agenda during the Great Depression. 

During the 1970s, Brown’s family supported iconic Democratic elected officials like Coleman A. Young, the city’s first Black mayor and a vice chair of the powerful Democratic National Committee, and Erma Henderson, Detroit’s first Black City Council president.

“I was her paperboy once upon a time,” Brown said of Henderson. 

Three years ago, he helped lead a spirited event at Ford Field in Detroit to support National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was blacklisted after kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racism.

Here’s your guide to voting in Michigan

“When you look at some of the recent incidents like what happened to Michael Bennett in Las Vegas, it validates the stance that Colin Kaepernick has taken,” Brown told the Detroit News in 2017.

In 2017, Clark County, Nev., Sheriff Joe Lombardo announced that three Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers acted properly in detaining Bennett, a Seattle Seahawks defensive end, shortly after attending the Aug. 26 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor. Bennett said publicly that the officers used excessive force.

Brown, an Eastern Michigan University graduate and an occasional radio talk show host and blogger, voted for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008. Yet Brown chose not to vote to reelect America’s first Black president in 2012. 

“I did not vote for Barack Obama because I thought that his ‘hope and change’ was not fulfilled,” Brown said, referring to Obama’s campaign slogan. “I just thought that he could have done more when Democrats had control of the Senate and House [in 2009 and 2010].”

In 2016, he cast a ballot for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee. “I was not feeling Hillary Clinton,” Brown said of the Democratic presidential nominee who lost to now-President Donald Trump, a Republican.

Brown refers to himself as an independent.

“I look at the person,” he said. “Not the party.”

On the first day of voting in Michigan, Sept. 24, Brown voted for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen. 

2016: What happened?

Democratic presidential nominees carried Michigan in six straight elections: 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. 

However, Clinton lost Michigan by just 10,704 votes in 2016, making it the closest state in the nation. That helped swing the Electoral College vote to Trump, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, even though she won the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. 

Blacks are, by far, Michigan’s largest racial minority at 14% of the population and have long been key to Democrats winning statewide races here. The state is 74.8% white; 3.5% Latino; 3.2% Asian; 1.6% Arab and .5% Native American.   

Voting data show that 75,000 people voted in Michigan’s general election that year, but skipped the presidential race. 

Detroit is Michigan’s largest city and is 80% Black. In 2012, Obama secured 97.5% of the Detroit vote, slightly up from the 96.9% share he received in 2008.

Clinton still performed well in Detroit, earning 92% of the vote. However, 42,000 fewer city voters casted a ballot for president in 2016 than did in 2012 for Obama. 

Nationally, 13% of Black men voted for Donald Trump in 2016, according to CNN exit polls, as opposed to only 4% of African-American women. 

Trump essentially won the presidency by fewer than 80,000 votes in the Electoral College, as that was his margin in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Jonathan Kinloch, who’s Black and the chair of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District Democratic Party anchored in Detroit, said that it is unfair to compare Black turnout in the Obama election wins of 2008 and 2012 with 2016 or 2020. 

“African Americans were excited about voting for someone who looked like them,” Kinloch said.

In the 2008 election, Blacks nationally recorded their highest turnout among voters aged 18 to 24 for Obama, whose father was Kenyan and his mother was an American white woman.

President Barack Obama delivers a commencement address to the University of Michigan 2010 class in Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 1, 2010. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In 2020, “you’re talking about two old white men on both sides of the ticket,” Kinloch said, referring to Biden and Trump. 

Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is another white man. Biden has tapped U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a Black and Indian woman, who would make history as the first vice president to hold any of these identities.

“I’m just excited about correcting the error in 2016,” Kinloch added, referring to Trump’s win over Clinton.

Pollster Richard Czuba said that Black men in Michigan should not be blamed for Clinton’s loss in Michigan. He said that overall voter motivation levels in 2016 were the “lowest that we’d ever seen.”

“Rather than the idea that it was just Black voters, it was a multitude of pockets of voters on the Democratic and center-left side,” said Czuba, founder of Glengariff Group. “It wasn’t just Black voters.”

Czuba pointed out that white voters in traditionally blue-collar areas like Saginaw and Bay counties flipped for Trump. Saginaw County is 19% Black; Bay County is 1.5% African American. 

“There was a substantial number of center and center-left Democrats, [who] for a myriad of reasons, sat it out,” he said. “They did not vote. It would not be accurate or fair to point to any one demographic. Donald Trump wrote the perfect storm of discontent from the Democratic side.”

Bishop Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit, argues that energy in the Black community for dumping Trump is certainly there. But he questions the excitement level for voting for Biden as a candidate.

“The energy is there out of a necessity,” Vann said. “We must vote to make sure that we get [Trump] out.”  

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For his part, Brown said Biden has offended him too many times over the years, citing Biden’s support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the 1994 crime bill. The legislation established longer mandatory sentences, eliminated federal funding for inmate education, and put 100,000 more police officers on the street. Brown and others have argued that it has led to a disproportionate number of Black men being incarcerated. 

Brown also is disappointed in Biden’s controversial comment in May when he told national radio host Charlamagne tha God, “’If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”

“Don’t ask me to vote for you without vetting you to see what you’re really about,” Brown said. 

Trump’s play for Black voters

This all has some Democrats worried that the excitement level of Blacks — men in particular — could cost Biden in his quest to defeat Trump on Nov. 3. Black and Latina women are two of Biden’s most reliable constituencies. 

It’s an interesting conundrum, as most analysts believe that Biden wouldn’t even be the Democratic nominee without the African American vote.

Biden struggled in the first 2020 contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, with some political observers writing his political obituary. However, he won the South Carolina primary Feb. 29, with Black voters turning out for him big time. An NBC News exit poll pointed out that he received 61% of the Black vote in South Carolina. About 60% of South Carolina Democrats are African American. 

Ten days later on March 10, Biden won the Michigan primary, defeating U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who pulled an upset here over Clinton four years ago.

The former vice president secured 52.9% of the vote, followed by Sanders at 36.4%, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg at 4.6%, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at 1.6% and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 1.4%.  

Biden currently leads Trump by 8 points in FiveThirtyEight’s Michigan polling average.

In November, analysts predict Biden will win a supermajority of the Black vote, as Democrats typically do. 

But the question is, how many of them will turn out? 

Many eyes are on African-American male turnout in particular. Politico recently interviewed more than 20 Democratic strategists, lawmakers, pollsters and activists. They spoke to an “ambivalence on the part of Black and Latino men. And President Donald Trump’s campaign is working to exploit that ambivalence,” the outlet reports.

And Trump is certainly making a play for Black voters. The campaign announced earlier this year that it would open an office in Detroit and in battleground states with significant Black populations, which is typical for the GOP.  

But the president also has trumpeted his support for criminal justice reform, a change from some “tough on crime” GOP policies dating back to the 1980s.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a prayer with African American Leaders and Pastor Paula White Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. | Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr Public Domain

In December 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act. The bipartisan measure reduced mandatory minimum sentences in some instances. It expands on “good time credits” for well-behaved prisoners who seek shorter sentences. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2018 pointed out that Black men accounted for 34% of the total male prison population, compared with white men 29%, and Latino men 24%.

It has scored him points with some African Americans, who are disproportionately incarcerated. During a photo opportunity in the White House to celebrate Black History in February, comedian Terrence K. Williams called Trump “the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” 

Trump often cites job growth, investing in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and expanding school choice as reasons that Blacks should support him.

“We need a leader like President Trump who understands the crisis facing America’s public schools, not a career politician like Joe Biden who supports the failing status quo,” said Linda Lee Tarver, a former Michigan Republican Party ethnic vice chair who’s now a Black Voices for Trump advisory board member.

However, he has repeatedly failed to condemn white supremacists and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, who he told to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate this month. Trump has campaigned that he’s the “law and order” candidate and has used racially coded language that he will protect the suburbs. 

Abdul Mohmed stands with a group of protestors after a campaign rally for U.S. President Donald Trump at the Target Center on October 10, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protestors and police clashed outside of the event. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

“Suburban women, they should like me more than anybody here tonight because I ended the regulation that destroyed your neighborhood,” Trump said at a Tuesday rally in Pennsylvania. “I ended the regulation that brought crime to the suburbs and you’re going to live the American dream. So can I ask you to do me a favor? Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”

Trump has been a vocal critic of Black Lives Matter protests and sent federal agents to quell demonstrators in cities like Portland and Detroit.

Last month, Trump unveiled his “Platinum Plan” for Blacks that includes prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan and Antifa as terrorist organizations, making Juneteenth a federal holiday and bolstering African-American economic prosperity. Juneteenth is a celebration of when Black slaves in Texas learned that African Americans had been freed. 

“Though Black Americans have traditionally been shut out of opportunities to grow our own businesses and create generational wealth, President Trump is working hard to give us access to the American Dream,” said K. Carl Smith, a Black Voices for Trump advisory board member. 

Voter suppression

At the same time, there have been reports of voter suppression tactics for Black voters and designed to help the Trump campaign. 

A recent BBC investigation revealed a 2016 Trump campaign effort directed toward almost 200 million Americans. More specifically, the British news organization exposed how 3.5 million African Americans were targeted on Facebook and other platforms and listed as “Deterrence” to try to stop them voting.

The Trump campaign’s aim through purchased data, according to the report, was to persuade Black voters to stay home and not vote. 

“They knew whether you were likely to own a dog, or a gun,” the broadcast news report stated. “Whether you were likely to get married or planning a baby. It was even a score for personality type.” 

People of color, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and “other” groups made up 54% of the ‘Deterrence’ category. “Meanwhile, categories of voters the campaign wished to attract were overwhelmingly white,” according to the report. 

There’s also been a recent rash of fake Twitter accounts posing as Black Trump supporters that experts have flagged for spreading misinformation, the Washington Post reports.

During an Aug. 26 virtual discussion with Michigan Black women, Harris pointed to a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report released in 2019 that found Russian agents targeted Blacks more than any other group with disinformation campaigns.

“Russia engaged in tactics designed to suppress the votes of Black Americans in particular,” the report read. “Russian operatives fraudulently posed as Black Americans to actively discourage the Black community from voting. Social media companies must step up their efforts to fight disinformation and remove inflammatory content on their platforms, including by ensuring their workforces are diverse enough to identify and understand the cultural nuances that foreign actors exploit to divide and harm Americans.”

The following day, the Michigan Department of State and the Attorney General’s office announced they were working to find the source of a robocall received by a Detroit resident that used racially-charged stereotypes to deter voting by mail.

The Advance reported that the caller mentions association with Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, conspiracy theorists who are well-known for debunked plots attempting to frame multiple political figures, mostly Democrats, for sexual misconduct.

Wohl and Burkman were arraigned this month in Detroit’s 36th District Court court on felony charges. 

“This is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said 

What would it take to win over more Black men?

Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair Keith Williams backs Biden. But he says the campaign must strengthen its message to Black men.

“The Democratic Party is not talking to Black males,” Williams said.  

Keith Williams | Keith Williams photo

He believes that they want to hear more from the Biden team about job creation, access to education and business development support. The caucus endorsed Harris for president before she exited the race in December and months before Biden tapped her as his running mate.

Williams, a business owner and former Wayne County Commission member, believes Biden should launch a business development incubator initiative aimed toward politically disaffected Black men. It would engage them, he said.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), second vice chair in the Congressional Black Caucus, concedes that motivating Black men to vote is a heavier lift than engaging Black women.

“Black men are fed up,” Lawrence said referring to police brutality and fatal force incidents across the country as well as disproportionate COVID-19 deaths. “Some of them have just checked out because it’s too much.”

In Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state population. But early on in the pandemic, they were 33% of the COVID-19 cases and 40% of the deaths. Lawrence represents one of Michigan’s two minority-majority congressional districts based in Detroit.

“The energy level of Black women is going to be hard for anybody else to match,” she said.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence at a rally for former Vice President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

In 2016, 64% of eligible Black women said they voted, compared with 54% of eligible Black men, according to a national Pew Research Center study. 

Akua Budu-Watkins, 71, a veteran African-American community organizer and strategist who has worked as an official for Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), said Black women are better organizers, both politically and socially, than Black men, in part, because society has allowed them to do so. Black women tend to be high-performance voters, she said, and thus receive more focus from the Democratic Party. 

“The powers that be have sliced and diced Black men out of the picture,” she said.

In addition, Budu-Watkins added that systematic racism has targeted Black men, resulting in higher incarceration rates, targeting of Black male elected officials and the squashing of political movements like the Black Panther Party and elements of the labor movement, a historic ally of the Democratic Party.  

Biden turns to ‘Shop Talk’

The Biden campaign appears to be aware of African American critiques.

Modeled after National Basketball Association star LeBron James’ HBO broadcast “The Shop,” Biden’s campaign launched its own digital version, called “Shop Talk.” One of the Biden campaign discussions features state Rep. Jewell Jones (D-Inkster), who’s African American and at 25, is Michigan’s youngest state lawmaker.

“I’m always telling people [in the past], this is the most important election, but this one I think is probably one of the most important ones,” said Jones, as reported by Yahoo News. “I think in the Supreme Court and the federal courts, the president has been appointing people that are just blatantly racist. So I think it’s important for the Black folk in general to realize that the voting isn’t just about the president this year — it’s about everyone from the top of the ticket all the way down.”

In late September, Harris spoke to Black men in Detroit as part of the “Shop Talk” series. She was joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and the Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president.                

“The reason we’re at a barber shop is because we want to have a real conversation,” Gilchrist said at the Detroit Headliners Barbershop event. “You see Black men here from different walks of life who all have shared experiences.”  

Harris addressed the economy during the event, saying that she and Biden would advocate for a $15 minimum wage.

“The cost of living in America keeps going up, but wages have remained stagnant,” Harris said.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at the Flint Farmers Market, Sept. 22, 2020 | Andrew Roth

The Biden campaign also launched two ads in Michigan, both on local TV and through digital channels. Called “Shop Talk Our Right” and “Shop Talk Trust”, the spots feature Black men talking in a barber shop setting, each wearing a protective mask. They address the concerns of millions of Black Americans who fear their lives are at risk under a second Trump administration, the Biden camp said.

Both ads also are running in North Carolina and Wisconsin, with “Shop Talk Trust” airing in Florida and “Shop Talk Our Right” airing in Pennsylvania. An extended 60-second version of “Shop Talk Our Right” is airing nationally.

In “Shop Talk Our Right,” a group of men erupt in side-splitting laughter after Trump says that he’s done more for the African-American community than any other U.S. president, “with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.”

In another portion of the 60-second version of “Shop Talk Our Right” one Black man said, “To the thousands who did not vote, we need you to show up for our future and for our country.”

The Biden campaign is running radio ads on stations to reach African-American voters across the state, including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Muskegon and the Saginaw-Bay City area. 

In Michigan, we’re running an expansive voter outreach program specifically engaging African-American voters through organizing efforts and our paid media campaigns,” said Zehra Khan, Biden Michigan spokesperson. “We are communicating every day about Joe Biden’s plans to advance the economic mobility of African Americans by investing in Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs in Michigan and across the country. And it’s resonating with voters across the state.”

Trump’s reelection campaign returned to Michigan airwaves this month with a $5.2 million buy after taking down its ads in July, according to a report in the Hill. He has $8 million earmarked for the state through the election, but the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network notes “his commitment to Michigan may be waning.”

Nevertheless, Michigan may still see more than $100 million in presidential ad spending in 2020, boosted, in part, by independent groups whose spending can be harder to track.

Meanwhile, Harris, the first Black and Asian woman on a major party presidential ticket, penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper, where she pointed out the importance of voting in this year’s election.

“The Black community understands just how critical this election is — because we are living the consequences of the last election every day. When it comes to nearly every issue that affects our lives, we have been disproportionately harmed by President Donald Trump and the failures of his administration.”

Meeting voters where they are

Before being elected lieutenant governor in 2018, Gilchrist was an organizer with the progressive group and the Obama campaign. 

During Michigan’s March presidential primary, in which he endorsed Biden after voting for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, Gilchrist stressed the need for candidates not to take the Black vote for granted. 

“I expect that Black voters will step up for the candidates and campaigns who come and speak to them and meet them where they are — which is something that I think, frankly, every presidential campaign needs to do a lot more of in the state of Michigan,” Gilchrist told the Advance. “And when they do, I think voters will respond.”

In an effort designed to drive turnout, Gilchrist on Saturday marched with 200 Black men to Detroit’s Election Commission office, where he and others voted.  As the only top statewide executive office holder who is an African-American man, Gilchrist said that economic and social conditions are ripe for a strong turnout of Black men. He has suggested that the Biden campaign place a focus on ex-offenders known as returning citizens.

“A lot of people are actually confused about whether they can actually vote,” Gilchrist said. “They don’t remember or recognize that Michigan has very progressive laws when it comes to casting a ballot, if you have a record, or even if you are on probation or parole. I’ve been reminding people that just because you have a record doesn’t mean that you don’t have voting power, and we need to use that power.”

Michigan is one of 16 states and the District of Columbia that allows felons the right to vote automatically upon jail or prison release.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist campaigning for former Vice President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“I certainly hear Black men saying, ‘What’s happening here is not working for us,’” Gilchrist said. “’We are not getting results. I think that they are ready to move in a different direction than Donald Trump. The Biden campaign has recognized that there is work to be done with this community.”

Eddie McDonald has played a lead role in statewide campaigns in Michigan since Bill Clinton was president in the 1990s. He’s now a Biden Michigan senior adviser and said that he has not heard concerns about Black men voting. He has, however, heard voters say that they have not seen Biden and Harris in Michigan enough.

Biden spoke to UAW members in Warren on Sept. 9 and appeared in Grand Rapids Oct. 2. Harris campaigned in Detroit and Flint on Sept. 22 and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came to Warren on Oct. 6. Former second lady Jill Biden appeared in Traverse City on Sept. 29.

The Trump campaign also has shown Michigan love, with Vice President Mike Pence visiting Traverse City on Aug. 28 and with plans to be in Grand Rapids on Wednesday. Trump held a rally in Freeland at an airport hangar on Sept. 10 and plans to return on Saturday with a Muskegon stop.  

So are Black men in Michigan feeling Biden?

“They hear us when we get to them,” McDonald said. “We’re trying to get to as many of them as we can.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.