By Roger House
Originally appeared in Word of Black
It’s all over the news that President Biden’s support among Black voters is slipping. Some pollsters point to an erosion of support with men as the primary cause, but struggle to explain why. To help Biden — and Democrats — shore up support with these critical voters, here are a few ideas for an agenda involving Black men for the 2024 election.
The problem extends beyond the Biden campaign to the Democratic Party. It first came to light in Stacey Abrams’ 2022 campaign for governor of Georgia. Then, her campaign reflected the popular thinking of Democrats — namely, that the primary issue of concern to Black men is criminal justice reform. When Black men failed to respond positively, some strategists took to blaming them for the shortcoming.
Abrams gradually adjusted her platform with a set of economic policies meant to appeal to working-class men. The change came too late for her campaign, but it did provide insights that should have been understood by Democratic strategists going forward. Instead, they ignored the warning signs and now face an accelerating erosion of support.
1. Acknowledge the Estrangement
With its emphasis on non-economic cultural issues and intersectional policy approaches, the Democratic Party has failed to give voice to the concerns of working-class men, especially those with a history of racial exclusion.
According to polls, many Black men are unimpressed by high-profile issues like abortion, transgender athletes in sports, aid to Ukraine and Israel, and more. It’s not that the issues are unimportant, or that the men are somehow deficient, but that the causes are marginal to their lives.
Rather than dismissing the estrangement as “just another poll,” Biden should acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns and find a way to center the economic mobility of Black men in his campaign. It can begin with an appreciation of their role in the survival of the middle class.
He should acknowledge the impact that generations of discrimination have had on their status in the workforce, the family, and society. Compared to other groups, Black men have experienced higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, lower rates of labor force participation, constrained occupational status, and undue competition from immigrant labor — legal and illegal — favored by some employers.
Even in good times, there has been little change in the fundamentals of an enormous wealth gap, persistent wage gap, and half-century of stunted middle-class growth since the 1960s, according to a report by the Institute for Policy Studies.
Biden, like President John F. Kennedy in 1963, has campaigned on the benefits of a strong economy reflected in the aphorism that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” However, history has shown the flaws in our thinking when it comes to Black labor. Past economic expansions have not been able to address racial disparities without priority on targeted inclusion.
2. Reform the Construction Industry
Biden must honor his promise of inclusive hiring for the new industrial revolution. The employment and potential wealth implications from the rebuilding of the country cannot be overstated. Going into the 2024 election, the industrial economy will receive a kick-start from the $500 billion Inflation Reduction Act, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and complementary investments from the private sector.
The combination of initiatives could be a game-changer on par with Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and Dwight Eisenhower’s Highway Act of 1956. Yet, just as Black labor faced widespread discrimination on those projects, it is at risk of similar outcomes this time. That’s because the construction industry historically has excluded Black workers. As a result, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the racial demographic in the construction industry today is 60% white, 30% Hispanic, and 5% Black American.
The structure bodes ill for Black workers as the nation embarks on the creation of electric battery plants, electric vehicle factories, electric charging stations, the weatherization of public buildings, the reconstruction of highways, bridges, and tunnels, and the installation of wind and solar power. These projects will require hiring and training thousands of skilled workers. Absent a concerted effort by the departments of Transportation, Energy, and Interior to monitor contracts, the outcome will be the same.
Biden must ensure that racial equity standards set by Congress are carried out. That means demonstrating his commitment to ensuring the hiring and training of Black skilled labor. Yet, bringing more men into the construction trades will require addressing historic racial barriers in unions and contractors, according to Travis Watson of the Boston Employment Commission.
He described the methods used to thwart Black skilled workers in “Union Construction’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Charade,” writing that “Union construction jobs are not just good jobs, they are great jobs. However, what’s often overlooked is union construction’s racism.”
The Congressional Black Caucus can hold the Biden administration accountable by demanding regular progress reports.
According to John Warren, publisher of the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, some prime contractors have failed to place ads for construction jobs in the Black press despite the language to promote equity in the law.
For example, under the section for “Surface Transportation” projects — primarily the federal highways — states are encouraged to develop five-year plans “for the immediate and long-term personnel and workforce needs.” This includes “targeted outreach and partnerships,” paid employment as “pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships, and career opportunities for on-the-job training,” and “local hiring preference for construction jobs” for “individuals that represent populations that are traditionally underrepresented in the workforce.”
Since former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has announced his intention to leave his role as a troubleshooter for the infrastructure program, Biden has an obligation to appoint a strong advocate for equity standards in infrastructure projects.
3. Esteem Young Black Men
Biden should highlight community initiatives that strengthen the cultural resolve of young men. These could be models for a program of national recovery. Understand that many suffer from a gnawing crisis that prevents them from seizing the opportunities to improve their lives.
Too many youths are estranged from belonging to the economic system — and from society itself. Some would benefit from supportive systems to nurture cooperation, self-control, and love of self and family. One example is President Barack Obama’s initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance,” which creates an affirming network for young men.
Biden can appeal to Black men by showing them the respect they deserve — on their own basis, not as intersections with other causes. Biden and the Democrats must do better if they expect working-class men to turn out in the 2024 election.
Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” His forthcoming book is “Five Hundred Years of Black Self Governance” by Louisiana State University Press. A version of the commentary appeared in The Messenger.