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Democrats Have Failed Urban Black Americans

The Republican critique of misrule in American cities has some merit, and it’s not clear that Joe Biden’s party is prepared to meet the need.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On the first night of the Republican National Convention on Monday, viewers were treated to a taped speech by Kimberly Klacik, a young, Black candidate for Maryland’s 7th House district, which includes a large share of Baltimore. She won’t be among the convention’s best-remembered appearances, but she did manage to capsulize much of Trump’s message for Black urban voters in just two short minutes. “Let me remind you that Democrats have controlled this part of Baltimore City for over 50 years,” she said. “And they have run this beautiful place right into the ground. Abandoned buildings, liquor stores on every corner, drug addicts, guns on the street—that’s now the norm in many neighborhoods. You’d think Maryland taxpayers would be getting a whole lot since our taxes are out of control. Instead, we’re paying for decades of incompetence and corruption. Sadly, this same cycle of decay exists in many of America’s Democrat-run cities.”

In a viral campaign ad earlier this month retweeted by Trump himself, Klacik took viewers on a walking tour of derelict blocks in West Baltimore, striding along streets with abandoned homes and businesses as statistics about the city’s crime and poverty were offered by voiceover. “Look at this,” she said over a shot of crumbling row houses. “How are children supposed to live here and play here? Democrats think black people are stupid. They think they can control us forever.” This line of argument—which political observers should be accustomed to hearing from the right by now—isn’t going to work for Klacik in Baltimore or for most Republican candidates in other heavily Democratic cities. It’s unclear whether it’ll succeed in nudging a meaningful sliver of Black voters toward Trump in November. But the substantive content of the message should be taken seriously: It is simply true that Black communities within Democratic cities like Baltimore have been struggling without much progress for generations and that their Democratic leaders have often been corrupt, inept, and ambivalent about addressing the problems they face. Baltimore’s poverty rate, at 23 percent, is about double the national average. The city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1967. Just this year, Baltimore’s last mayor—Democrat Catherine Pugh, a fixture of the city’s politics for two decades—was sentenced to three years in prison on tax evasion, fraud, and conspiracy charges related to sales of a children’s book she’d written that was supposed to be distributed in the city’s schools.

It goes without saying that nothing in Klacik’s 300-word platform would solve the deep problems facing Baltimore or any city. Tax incentives that flow largely to well-off neighborhoods and school choice policies aren’t going to undo decades of socioeconomic and structural decay in poor communities. We know this because Democrats have tried them; the failures Klacik points to have been efforts to do exactly as she recommends now. We know too that the dismantling of the federal welfare state and mass incarceration failed to revive poor communities and that the Republican Party remains a central obstacle to federal urban investment. The question is what Democrats will attempt now to turn the page.

One of the most significant relevant proposals in Joe Biden’s current platform is his plan to make affordable housing vouchers an entitlement, aimed at addressing a housing crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has deepened within a few short months. As it stands, the reach of vouchers is limited by statute—unlike food stamps, which simply go out to all Americans who might qualify, funding for vouchers is capped at the outset, leaving an estimated 11 million potential recipients, or three-quarters of the eligible, out. In July, researchers at Columbia told Vox’s Matt Yglesias that fully funding the program as an entitlement could reduce poverty in America by 22 percent and child poverty by over a third. This would be real material change for many Black families.

But in a Tuesday piece for the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank, housing policy analyst Paul Williams argued that while an expansion of housing vouchers would be beneficial on net, the program’s existing design incentivizes residential segregation. “Currently, many voucher awards are calculated using HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) calculations, which are based on large citywide samples—skewing the ‘Fair Market’ ceiling much higher than the actual market rent in a disinvested neighborhood,” he wrote. “Landlords in these neighborhoods, then, can make more money keeping voucher-holders in those neighborhoods than they would renting their apartments out to non-voucher holders at the non-subsidized market rent—and they do.” This, along with discrimination against voucher holders in less disadvantaged areas, is among the factors that can cleave cities apart racially and economically.

Williams also noted that another portion of Biden’s housing platform, the expansion of a tax credit that funds the construction of affordable housing, is limited by the level of the current corporate tax rate, which Biden has proposed raising only slightly. When the rate is low, affordable housing developers can’t sell the credit off to banks quite as easily. “This was widely noted when Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 slashed the corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent,” he wrote, “resulting in an estimated 14 percent reduction in the effectiveness (i.e., number of units produced) of the [Low-Income Housing Tax Credit].”

Many on the left tend to prefer policies that would either facilitate or fund the construction of new housing more directly and, in his piece, Williams praised policies supported by Biden and other Democrats that might lift regressive zoning restrictions and add new units. “If cities were to take a Biden administration up on these incentives, it could result in large swaths of land that would be greenlighted for affordable housing development, paving the way for cities to make use of more serious allocations of funding as proposed above.” But the housing platform places its emphasis on the expansion of existing market-based policies.

This is indicative of the larger policy divide shaping Democratic politics. The rest of Biden’s racial equity platform is chock full of credits and loans to minority entrepreneurs and businesses, support for black students, and other proposals well in keeping with the principles of mainstream Democratic policymaking. Progressives have been pushing instead for new universal social programs that would disproportionately benefit minorities—a job guarantee, a basic income, and so on—as well as programs specifically framed and constructed as reparations to the Black community for the racism that has impoverished them. Biden has plainly been influenced by them—40 percent of the benefits from a proposed $2 trillion in green investments, his platform says, would go to disadvantaged communities, and the projects those investments would fund would be staffed by diverse workforces.

The push from the left for more, and the litigation of all the complexities that shape urban policymaking, will obviously persist. But those fights will mostly happen well behind our national political front lines. The concerns of the vast majority of Black urban voters are of no real consequence in presidential elections, and it stands to reason that appeals like Klacik’s are aimed at convincing troubled white voters that Trump isn’t a racist as much as or more than they’re aimed at moving the needle with Blacks. The Electoral College simply doesn’t offer those seeking the presidency much of an incentive to focus on addressing urban problems; obviously, the attitudes of nonurban white voters more central to national politics have made policymakers and politicians apprehensive about addressing them ambitiously.

Cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia proved themselves exceptions to the rule in 2016. Drops in Black turnout helped doom Clinton in those states. But Biden’s ahead of Trump because he’s made up ground with white voters in swing states and elsewhere even though he hasn’t significantly improved his standing with Black voters. If they play their cards right elsewhere in the electorate, Democrats can afford some urban disaffection. The single greatest thing the party could do to ensure sustained national policy attention for struggling Black communities would be an investment of resources in the push to eliminate the Electoral College. Biden has said he opposes this.

Closer to the ground, some of these communities are sending young progressives and socialists to their city halls and to Congress. The George Floyd protests have bolstered the movement to dismantle the carceral state. In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders did remarkably well with Black voters under 45. The Democratic Party’s overall trajectory on urban issues seems clear. But absent dramatic reforms to our national political system, Black voters aren’t going to be the ones deciding how fast the party changes.