Chris Hopson | Harvard University
Marvel Studios’ latest movie Black Panther came out about two months ago and broke a lot of records. But one of its most impressive accomplishments came just a few days ago, when The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Black Panther has surpassed 1997’s Titanic to become the third highest-grossing movie in US box office history. The two movies ahead of it are 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and 2009’s Avatar, so, at the time of this writing, Black Panther is the highest-grossing superhero movie in US history. This is impressive in its own right, but it is also further evidence that movies with a cast and crew made up almost entirely of people of color can be wildly successful. Marvel’s decision for Wakanda to feature heavily in its upcoming Avengers: Infinity War suggests that they’ve learned a valuable, and profitable, lesson: black people are a powerful socioeconomic constituency in the US. Consider this: black people make up about 13% of the US population, but made up 37% of Black Panther’s opening weekend audience. This outsized support from black audiences helped Black Panther leap into the history books.
From a business standpoint, Marvel should keep catering to black audiences. But there’s another realm in which black Americans have made an impact far beyond what their numbers would suggest they’re capable of: politics. As impressive as the box office success that black moviegoers have delivered to Marvel is, it is dwarfed by the political success that black voters have delivered to the Democratic Party for decades. The New York Times has exit polling data from every presidential election since 1972, and the trends are impossible to miss. In those past 12 presidential elections, no Democratic nominee has received less than 80% of the black vote, and three have received over 90%. Black Americans are the most loyal constituency the Democratic Party has; in 2016, a higher portion of black voters voted for Hillary Clinton than voters who identified as “liberal”! Consider the fact that in those past 12 presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has never received more than 47% of the white vote, and it seems like black voters might be the only reason why Democrats can win presidential elections at all. Democrats also have black voters to thank for their most significant electoral victory of 2017: the closely-followed special election for one of Alabama’s Senate seats, which exploded onto the national scene when Republican candidate Roy Moore’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior with young women was revealed. Despite much national disgust about what Moore had done, the truth is that he would have won the election if it weren’t for the black voters of Alabama. According to data from the Washington Post, 68% of white voters voted for Moore, while 96% of black voters voted for his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.
The Democrats’ reliance on black voters was made clearer in a tragic way in the 2016 presidential election. Black voter turnout dropped nationwide by seven percentage points compared to the 2012 election, but was down by an even larger margin in the states that ended up deciding the election; it dropped by over 12 percentage points in Michigan and Wisconsin. It may be impossible to determine whether lower black turnout was the main culprit in Hillary Clinton’s loss, but it was certainly implicated. Some might be tempted to interpret 2016 as a cautionary tale: the overreliance on the black vote is dangerous for the Democrats, so they should move to appeal to a broader audience.
This is arguably what the Clinton campaign tried to do when it chose Tim Kaine as her running mate; it was the first presidential election in eight years where the Democrats didn’t have a black person on their ticket. But I would argue that the tale of 2016 is cautionary in the opposite direction; it’s a reminder to Democrats that they have to reinvest in black voters if they are to have any hope of winning in the Trump era. Why was the black vote down in the first place?
Voter ID laws, like the one in Wisconsin, almost certainly have a lot to do with it. Voter ID laws have been shown to lower minority voting, sometimes by discouraging people from coming to the polls out of fear that they don’t have the right sort of ID, or by turning them away from the polls once they’re there. One study estimated that at least 17,000 voters, including a disproportionate number of black voters, were kept from voting in Wisconsin in 2016 because of its ID law. Trump won that state by just about 23,000 votes; if a sizable portion of those 17,000 voters had voted for Clinton, a recount may have been in order. Beyond fighting to stop the spread of restrictive (and unnecessary) voter ID laws, the Democrats should field candidates who have more immediate rapport with black voters, something they were lacking in 2016.
Barack Obama received over 90% of the black vote in both of his presidential runs, and his reelection in 2012 was aided by (and perhaps due to) record-breaking black turnout. But a candidate need not be black to have rapport with black voters. Doug Jones actually received a slightly higher percentage of the black vote in Alabama in 2017 than President Obama did in 2012. But Jones wasn’t just any white candidate; he had been a federal prosecutor whose greatest career achievement was prosecuting two members of the Ku Klux Klan who had bombed a Birmingham church in 1963, killing four black girls. 54 years later, 98% of black women voters helped win him a Senate seat.
The Democratic Party has a lot of important decisions to make in choosing the ticket that will hopefully dethrone Trump and Pence in 2020. To my mind, the 2017 Alabama special election and the 2018 success of Black Panther should remind them of a lesson they may have forgotten in 2016: mobilizing black people will bring you great success in politics, as it will in business. They have some great options; Kamala Harris and Corey Booker come to mind, as does Michelle Obama if they decide to be really ambitious. Even Oprah Winfrey’s name has been floated. That might seem a little far-fetched, but how about a Democrat winning a Senate seat in Alabama, or a movie about a fictional African nation led by a king wearing a catsuit making more money than Titanic?