Local leaders reached out to neglected eligible voters. And they changed history together.
DETROIT—Black Michiganders have always played an influential role in the state’s culture. Now they have become a pivotal force in turning the state blue.
When the 2016 presidential race was decided by less than 11,000 votes in Michigan, Detroiters mobilized to change 2020’s narrative—and they know they’re responsible for the election’s outcome.
“You can’t win Michigan without Detroit,” Lateshia Parker, press secretary for NextGen Michigan, told The ‘Gander. “It’s the biggest city in our state.”
“That makes Michigan’s Black vote key,” added Parker. Nearly 80% of Detroit residents are Black, according to US Census data.
In the 2020 election, there was a 50% voter turnout among the city’s half-million registered voters. Sixty-one percent of Wayne County voters turned out (compared to just under 49% of registered voters in 2016), 40% of whom are Black.
The grassroots organizing, from the efforts of groups like NextGen Michigan, which mobilized the state’s youth voters to get candidates into office, to influential nonprofits like the NAACP, helped turn the tide. Their efforts were bolstered by Democratic candidates who took a more hands-on approach to engaging the state’s Black voters.
Biden-Harris Appeal to Black Voters
The Biden-Harris campaign analyzed and understood the numbers in Michigan, sending Black celebrities like Lizzo, Kerry Washington, and Magic Johnson to help sway voters in their direction. They also went to Detroit multiple times during the pandemic to prove they understood the value of voters in the city. And they showed they had learned from the mistakes of the 2016 election season.
In an April 2016 interview on iHeartMedia’s The Breakfast Club, one of the nation’s most-listened to Black radio shows, then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton infamously told nationally syndicated radio show hosts that she carried hot sauce in her purse. One of the hosts pointed out she might be viewed as pandering to Black people, and Clinton responded: “Is it working?”
The clip went viral, and Clinton’s track record of advocating for and working with Black and brown communities fizzled among the younger demographic.
But it wasn’t just that moment. Throughout the 2016 campaign season, Black voters said they felt left out of the Clinton’s plans, with the candidate choosing to visit other swing states under the assumption that Michigan would go blue.
The Democratic Party has worked harder to more authentically engage the Black electorate ever since. In 2018 that hard work paid off with a wave of women of color being sent to Congress.
And during the presidential race, Biden and Harris visited for multi-stop trips that were clearly meant to reach Black voters. If Joe Biden was in Bloomfield, the campaign was sure to send a representative to Inkster too. When Kamala Harris visited the state, she stopped by Troy and Flint, engaging with all Michigan voters, but making pointed efforts to go to the cities with the most concentrated Black populations in the state.
In Flint, voters were introduced to vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris in person at a socially distanced car rally. She also engaged with local Black business owners to learn ways she could affect positive change for them from the White House, if elected.
Turning Out Michigan’s Black Electorate
Detroit’s branch of the NAACP is known as one of the largest and most influential in the country. Its work to engage voters this election cycle included phone calls, texts, and neighborhood canvassing.
Before either major political party engaged Detroiters in the historic election, the city’s NAACP volunteers were hard at work to educate and register voters.
Detroit Action, another local grassroots organization, is “a union of Black and Brown, low and no-income, homeless and housing insecure Detroiters,” according to its website. The group tabulates that it made some 980,000 calls and sent another 250,000 text messages to get Detroiters of color ready to mobilize for the election—residents were appreciative of the group’s work.
“The Bigliest Loss Ever”
Now that Election Day is over, Detroit NAACP Executive Director Kamilia Landrum encouraged Detroiters to be patient as all votes are counted in Michigan, joking on Twitter that this could be “the bigliest loss ever” for the embattled sitting president.
NAACP President Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony expressed similar sentiments online regarding patience, but that he felt “America should be better than this,” referring to the president’s lawsuits to stop ballot counting in areas where he is losing the election.
The lawsuit the president filed to halt Michigan’s ballot count was tossed.
But even before the presidential race is called, people around the country are noticing the effect of high turnout among Black voters in Michigan—particularly in Detroit—and in other swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and now Georgia. Major metropolises like Philadephia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta are some of the largest majority-Black cities in the country. And they’re deciding the election.