Black Census Project
Tamika Middleton, a trainer at Black Futures Lab's Black Census Project, speaks with a Black Census Project taker during in-field practice in Atlanta in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Black Futures Lab

Equal Voice

Black Census Project Shows You Can’t Take Black Voters for Granted

November 8, 2019

By Terry Collins

The inaugural Black Census Project found that many Black Americans don’t think politicians care much about their issues and communities. The project and its supporters, including Alicia Garza and Rashad Robinson, plan to change that.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election left Alicia Garza a bit shell-shocked.

It wasn’t so much the outcome of the election, but how few Black people participated in the voting process a mere eight years after the U.S. elected its first Black president with a record-setting turnout.

What remains one of our biggest takeaways is that you can't take Black voters for granted. You just can't.
Alicia Garza of Black Futures Lab

Like many, Garza thought there would be no regression. She thought Black voices would be consistent at the polls, especially after more than 65 percent of eligible Black voters voted in 2008 and 67 percent voted in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

But then Black turnout decreased sharply in the 2016 presidential election to 59.6 percent. Not only did the figure fall for the first time in 20 years, but the seven-point decline was the largest ever recorded for Black people in the U.S., the Pew Research Center reported.

Even more alarming, the overall number of Black voters in 2016 declined by nearly 765,000 to 16.4 million, just four years after the Black voter turnout rate had surpassed that of White voters for the first time when Obama was reelected.

“2016 was my wake-up call,” Garza said. “By and large, some politicians are satisfied with paying a lot of lip service to the Black community and showing up thinking they understand us.”

She added: “The crisis facing Black people deserves serious attention and serious solutions.”

Brittany Ferrell, a Black Futures Lab organizer, speaks with an AfroPunk attendee about Black Futures Lab and the Black Census Project in Brooklyn in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Black Futures Lab

Garza is the principal founder of the Black Futures Lab, which recently conducted the inaugural Black Census Project. More than 31,000 Black people from all 50 states participated in the Black Census Project. Garza believes it’s the most significant independent survey ever conducted in the United States – at least since Reconstruction.

The project invested more than $500,000 for outreach to a demographic Garza describes as frequently left out of polls and surveys, not to mention mainstream political programs and activities. In the survey, a strong sentiment emerged that elected officials and politicians don’t truly care much about Black Americans.

“We are not waiting for politicians to ‘get it,'” said Garza, who is perhaps best known as a co-founder of the influential Black Lives Matter movement. “The issues facing us are incredibly complex, and to address them, we need to both experiment and innovate. We needed to move the needle, big time.”

Along with several contributing partners, Garza said her organization trained more than 100 Black organizers and worked with nearly 30 grassroots organizations nationwide, including PushBlack, the Miami Workers Center and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, as part of its outreach.

“What Alicia has brilliantly done is first and foremost ask Black people what they want, what are their hopes and aspirations, and to have the ability to leverage those decisions,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a leading online racial justice organization that took part in the Black Census Project.

Color of Change, along with Demos and SocioAnalitica, was a partner in a study entitled, “More Black than Blue: Politics and Power in the 2019 Black Census.”

What Alicia has brilliantly done is first and foremost ask Black people what they want, what are their hopes and aspirations, and to have the ability to leverage those decisions.
Rashad Robinson of Color of Change

Garza believes that she’s given more than 20 presidential candidates an ultimate primer on the issues affecting Black voters – as well as insight on how out of touch those candidates might be.

“Luckily, we did the work for them,” Garza said. “And what we hope is that they will use this information to their benefit, because if you really want to reach Black communities, it’s incumbent upon you to engage Black communities to get the same information that we did.”

Robinson said that the candidates have to be very clear on how they are going to make change happen for Black people.

“It’s not just about the what, but the how,” he said. “How will these candidates work to achieve the type of change that is necessary for our communities?”

Among the surprising findings in the Black Census Project is that 90 percent of respondents say that working for low wages is a major problem. The figure spikes to 97 percent among those who consider themselves electorally engaged.

“The candidates love to talk to us about criminal justice reform, but fail to talk to us about the issues that are the same for Black people who live in Des Moines, Iowa” and Oakland, California, Garza said.

Other challenges pointed out by respondents include:

  • Access to affordable, quality health care
  • Substandard housing
  • Increasing costs of going to college
  • Different standards for the rich and the poor

The census notes that more than 75 percent of respondents support raising taxes for people who make $250,000 or more.

Glen Taylor, a Black Futures Lab organizer, speaks with a man during in-field practice for the Black Census Project in Atlanta in July 2018. Taylor also works with Equity and Transformation (EAT), a Chicago community organization. Photo courtesy of Black Futures Lab

Those bread-and-butter issues surprised Garza, since they took precedent over concerns she is more renown for: law enforcement’s treatment of Black people. About 83 percent of respondents see excessive force by police as problematic, and 87 percent say police officers killing Black people is a problem.

Also revealing, and perhaps at the heart of why the Black Census Project exists, is that 52 percent of respondents believe that politicians do not care about Black people. Another third also say that politicians care just a little.

Garza said that’s an awful imbalance. White voters are diminishing and getting older, and voters of color are increasing, notably among younger demographics.

While more young voters overall are taking to the polls, nearly half of young people between the ages of 18- to-29-years-old who participated in the Black Census Project are not electorally engaged.

Overall, nearly 40 percent of those participating in the Black Census Project say they voted and participated in activities to get others to do the same, including canvassing, donating to campaigns and giving voters a ride to the polls.

Garza said she wants Black voters to know their power lies within numbers come election season. She’s encouraged that Black voter turnout was up nearly 11 percent in the 2018 midterm elections compared to 2014, which featured the most diverse array of candidates in American history (and the most turnout for a midterm election in more than a century).

And she said Black women will play a decisive role in picking the next president. About 60 percent of respondents in the census project are Black women, and almost half of respondents live in the southern region of the U.S.

Garza plans to update the survey with more outreach efforts. She wants to see voter turnout increase exponentially on Election Day 2020. As part of that nonpartisan effort, Black Futures Lab plans to register 20,000 new Black voters in advance of the 2020 general election.

“What remains one of our biggest takeaways is that you can’t take Black voters for granted,” she said. “You just can’t.”


Terry Collins is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared in Fortune, The Associated Press, Bloomberg Businessweek and CNET. Follow him on Twitter at @terryscollins. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice stories can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

Black Census Project Shows You Can’t Take Black Voters for Granted