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Democrats And African-American Voters


On the other side of that race, African-Americans came out in full force for Doug Jones in Alabama. And they were also a major factor in the election of Ralph Northam in the Virginia governor's race back in November. To get some perspective on what it takes to turn out the black vote, we turn to Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a political action committee whose goal is to mobilize black voters. She says African-American voters are interested in a range of issues.

ADRIANNE SHROPSHIRE: People care very deeply about the economy. They care very deeply about jobs. They care very deeply about education and access to education for their children. But there is an overarching set of racial justice issues that are sort of primary motivating factors for black voters' participation in the electorate. And they range from voting rights and concerns around voter suppression, criminal justice system reform, racial disparities across all of the kind of economic issues. So these racial justice issues that, you know, have been identified by black voters in many ways are key indicators to their likelihood to participate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you, is that a common theme? Because you work all over the country. So is that a common theme that you see everywhere, or does it depend where these different races are being run?

SHROPSHIRE: No. I think it's a common theme. And we started clearly seeing this even leading into 2016, given all the police violence that was happening in - over the last, you know, few years, right? It is not going to be enough. It's not going to be sufficient for candidates when they're running, and they're engaging black voters to simply default to issues of the economy and jobs. So that's sort of how we begin any program. And the next is to engage voters on the doors and do it early and do it often.

I think part of the challenge that we see often with black voter engagement programs is that there's this assumption that black voters are just get-out-the-vote voters, that you just touch them in the final week or two of a campaign, and they'll somehow miraculously or magically just turn up to the polls. We know that that is not true. We know that you have to engage voters very early. But the conversations have to be substantive. People want to talk about the issues.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you concerned about some of the messaging, though, of the Democratic Party post-2016 election? There was a big debate about strategy, a push to focus on economics, which you say is not enough, and on white working-class voters and sort of warning to stay away from identity politics, the very thing that you say is important to black voters. Where does that leave the party now in terms of their strategy going forward?

SHROPSHIRE: I actually reject the notion of identity politics, you know? When black and brown voters decide to organize themselves in their communities to push back against racism and discrimination, they're actually reacting to white identity politics. And so I think that it's not appropriate - right? - to put the label of identity politics on communities of color. But this is partly what I'm saying about the need for candidates to lean into racial justice issues. I also think that if Virginia and Alabama have demonstrated anything, it is that black voters, voters of color and women are the core of the progressive coalition in this country. And so not acknowledging that and not leaning into that and not relying on that base is not an appropriate strategy going forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is the Democratic Party leadership now taking notice? I mean, have they seen what happened in Alabama and Virginia and are now trying to implement these strategies and incorporate them?

SHROPSHIRE: I think it's an ongoing process, for sure. I think that we have seen some shifts in the way that for me often has felt like a transactional relationship between the party and black voters and certainly the party and black-led organizations. I think that we have seen a shift both coming out of Virginia and certainly going into Alabama.

We partnered in Alabama with Senate Majority PAC, who invested in - significantly in African-American voter mobilization in Alabama and really trusted the folks that they were investing in to lead the work. So I think we're beginning to see a shift in that relationship. And, hopefully, there will be an understanding that there's a need to begin to engage black voters and black organizations literally tomorrow in order to be able to prepare for the scale of the races that will happen in 2018.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, thank you very much.

SHROPSHIRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAPELIER FOU'S "ORACLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.