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Will Angela Alsobrooks have a problem with Black men voters?

The Black woman candidate for Senate may face resistance from a group often expected to vote for Democrats.

- December 20, 2023
Angela Alsobrooks, a Black woman running for U.S. Senate, speaking at an event.
Angela Alsobrooks speaking at a Prince George’s County luncheon in March 2023. Maryland GovPics

So, here’s the deal: A Black woman is running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. Angela Alsobrooks is currently the county executive for Prince George’s County, after having been a county state’s attorney and its first full-time domestic violence prosecutor. However, U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a man who is the first Black congressional minority leader, recently endorsed her opponent

In this political moment, Black women have used their political clout to get Black women nominated and elected as vice president of the United States; successfully lobbied the Biden/Harris administration to nominate the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court; and pressured California Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a Black woman to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. After decades of behind-the-scenes work in the Democratic Party, it may seem that Black women politicos are reaping the benefits.

But can Black women succeed politically without the support of Black men?

It’s well documented that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Since 2018, Black women have proved that their support can make or break a candidate and have come out in force to support Democratic candidates – notably so in presidential elections. In a state like Maryland that is slightly over 30% Black, with a candidate hailing from what was once the wealthiest majority-Black county in America, it is reasonable to assume that Black women voters will come out to support Angela Alsobrooks for Senate. Indeed, scholarship supports this assumption, finding that Black women are the most loyal supporters of Black women candidates. 

So why is Alsobrooks facing a tighter-than-anticipated election?

Alsobrooks is running against Rep. David Trone (D-Md.). Trone is a wealthy white businessman who has been a House member since 2018, and has spent over $10 million on his campaign for Senate, significantly more than the $1.2 million Alsobrooks has spent. Trone is self-financing the majority of his campaign and is using the money to buy advertising. At face value, the fight for this open Senate seat may seem like another sign that, as the famous saying has it, “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But there is something else afoot.  

Using “ban the box” to court Black male voters

Trone has been accused of courting Black male voters in an attempt to drive a gendered wedge against a Black woman candidate. Trone co-sponsored a federal bill that would “ban the box,” a policy that would prevent employers from asking about someone’s criminal record until late in the job application process. Indeed, Trone’s work on restorative justice has increased attention to the difficulties faced by formerly incarcerated individuals and has raised awareness of employment discrimination. This bill would have a direct impact on the employment of Black men. Trone has campaigned heavily around this policy and has appeared in Black communities to tout his accomplishment on this front.

However, some practitioners and scholars note that “ban the box” laws, currently in place for government employment in 29 states, may have an unintended effect of discouraging employers from hiring young Black men – because employers preemptively assume those young men would be especially likely to have criminal records. These voices argue that policies should therefore address racial discrimination in hiring outright. 

Linking Black men to criminality is not new. Nor are efforts at legislative solutions to addressing Black criminal records and its resulting impacts. Legislative attempts to remedy racial disparities in criminal justice have gained particular attention in the era of Black Lives Matter. Trone is channeling these initiatives to court Black voters who have been impacted by the carceral state. Take, for example, this commercial that features Black males who have previously served prison sentences endorsing Trone for Senate, or this ad that features the candidate discussing racial disparities in sentencing. Trone’s advertising – ever-present in Maryland because he can afford to run ads in the expensive media market of Washington, D.C. – is targeted directly to Black men and Black communities with intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system. These ads distinctly mention Black men – emphasizing gender – and not Black women, trans, non-binary, or gender-fluid individuals. Clearly, Trone is speaking directly to Black men in his Senate bid.

A number of organizations and politicians have made a concerted effort to focus on mobilizing Black male voters. In 2020, BET ran a special with rapper T. I. and Andrew Gillum, former mayor of Tallahassee, Fla., to urge Black men to vote. The criminal justice system was a central policy issue discussed during this special. While voter disenfranchisement and suppression were also discussed, T.I. and other Black men chastised politicians for not speaking directly to Black voters – implicitly meaning Black men – about issues that impact them the most. While organizations like The Black Male Voter Project examine a more expansive list of policy issues, they still rightfully focus on the impact of the carceral state. Their policy initiatives include ending cash bail, ending qualified immunity, and putting trades back into schools. Clearly, criminal justice reform is an issue of importance to Black men.

Why does this matter?

Black male voters prefer Democrats. Much like Black women, they support Democratic candidates at rates upwards of 70%, which is higher than the rates from other gendered/racial groups. Recently, some observers have drawn attention to Black male voters who may not be steadfast Democrats but who are bound by social and communal ties to the party. Current poll numbers reveal that young Black men are supporting former president Trump by 27%, as compared to only 17% of Black women. This may be because Trump is seeking solidarity with Black men by claiming that he too is a victim of the criminal justice system. While Trump’s appeals to Black men on the grounds of a biased criminal justice system may not be enough to move Black communities to turn out in large numbers for a Republican, exit poll data demonstrates that Black men have been slowly drifting away from the Democratic party since 2018 and are increasingly casting ballots for the GOP.

Politician and voting rights organizer Stacey Abrams directly confronted a gendered racial gap in her second bid to become the first Black woman governor of Georgia in 2022. Abrams sought to get ahead of this by hosting events with Black men and imploring them to vote for her. Black male voters are a crucial demographic group – but polls rarely disaggregate data by both race and gender, which prohibits politicos from understanding how to best target this key group. Stacey Abrams and other Black women politicos have surmised that Black men were targets of deliberate disinformation campaigns that resulted in the gendered gap among her Black supporters. 

Other Black women candidates have intentionally reached out to Black male voters. Stacey Abrams, former U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), and Vice President Kamala Harris invoked the Black men in their lives to showcase their connectedness to this demographic group. This was harder for Harris, who as a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination spoke mostly about her husband and stepson, who are white, because she has a strained relationship with her Afro-Jamaican father. Reaching out to Black men about the policy issues that matter most to them is key; if not successful in this, Black Democrats will continue to lose winnable races.

Moving forward

Black women candidates must pay attention to Black male voters. The alarm for Democrats has sounded. And Black men have to be courted if Democrats hope to win in 2024. Jeffries’ endorsement of Alsobrooks’ opponent highlighted the fact that, in Maryland, the candidate cannot take the support of Black men for granted. Maryland has already shown that Black candidates can win statewide office there. If she wins the Democratic nomination and the general contest, Alsobrooks could become the fourth Black woman U.S. senator. 

Trone has been drawing attention to Latino dissatisfaction with Alsobrooks’ county administration, making diversity an issue in the campaign. Yet, it is how they speak to, with, and about marginalized communities that will help get these candidates elected. And so the question in Maryland may not be whether a Black woman can get non-Black voters behind her, but rather whether she can mobilize Black male voters on her behalf.