Real Talk | The white Midwest and 'electability' arguments are false

Real Talk | The white Midwest and 'electability' arguments are false

Addressing the NAACP convention in Detroit, Democratic presidential candidate Kalama Harris challenged the false narrative of the Midwest as a white region.

Harris rightly claimed the pundits' notion of "electability" reflects their misconception of the region, the type of candidate who can appeal to Midwestern voters and it privileges white male candidates.

She contends the pundits' notion of the Midwest is "simplistic" and "narrow" and "leaves people out . . . it leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit."

The "electability" argument is wrongheaded. It represents a return to the failed presidential campaigns of 2000, 2004 and 2016. It prioritizes white working- and middle-class voters and diminishes and neglects African-Americans, the Democratic Party's base.

Moreover, because it privileges whites and minimizes and erases African-Americans and Latinx, Arabs and Native Americans from residence in the region, the "electability" argument reeks of racism.

Since the second decade of the 20th century, African-Americans in Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City and Indianapolis have played a major role in shaping African-American culture, business, politics and social movement activism. The erasure of blacks from the Midwest is a phenomenal historical and political deception.

In African-American history, the Northeast, especially New York, is contrasted with the South.

In the dominant narrative, blacks fled Southern slavery, largely for the Northeast, which had abolished slavery in 1820s-1830s. Thus, the North came to represent freedom, if not equality, while the South embodied enslavement. Since the first Great Migration, 1919-1935, African-American history has been shaped by a narrow New York-centric bias.

In the wake of the first wave of the Great Migration, New York City attained the largest black population. Ever since, New York City (and the Northeast region) has held a privileged place in the black imagination. It was the site of the Harlem Renaissance. Author and NAACP Executive Director James Weldon Johnson termed Harlem the "cultural capital" of Afro-America. Alain Locke, the father of the Renaissance, considered it a "race capital."

New York and the Northeast's pride of place is curious when we consider demographics, cultural trends, business, politics and social movement activism. Despite having similar numbers and percentages of black people, the Midwest is imagined very differently than is the Northeast.

Interestingly, while elites designated Harlem the "capital" of Afro-America, common black people called Chicago "the Mecca." Since the late 19th century, many of the most significant African-American social movement organizations and leaders were founded or headquartered in the Midwest, chiefly in Chicago.

The Chicago Defender (1905) accelerated the Great Migration by encouraging blacks to flee the oppression and repression that characterized the South.

After New Orleans and Memphis, the most important centers of black music production, were Midwestern cities — St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit. By the 1940s, Chicago had surpassed Durham, N.C., as the black business capital.

The large numbers and percentage of black Midwesterners in key cities encouraged and facilitated high levels of organization and militance.

Oscar De Priest, the first black congressman since Reconstruction came from Chicago. Three of the eight 20th-century black U.S. senators were elected from Illinois. The state has sent the most blacks to the U.S. House, 16. Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher, the first two African-American mayors of major cities were elected in Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Ind. And Barack Obama, the only black person to occupy the U.S. presidency, came from the Windy City.

From the founding of the National Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890 to Ida B. Wells' move there in 1905 to the National Negro Congress' founding in 1936 to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party to Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH to Louis Farrakhan, Chicago has been home to significant black social activists and movements.

From the Trade Union Leadership Council's formation in 1957 to the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Detroit has given rise to major African-American labor organizations.

Demographically, since the Great Migration, there has been virtually no difference in the numbers and percentage of blacks residing in the Northeast and Midwest.

In 1940, 11 million blacks lived in both regions and comprised 4 percent of each's population. In fact, as late as 1975, more blacks lived in the Midwest than in the Northeast, 20 million to 18 million.

However, at 9 percent to 8 percent, the Northeast contained a slightly larger percentage. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2016, about 8.2 million black people lived in the Northeast and nearly 8.1 million in the Midwest, comprising 18 percent and 17 percent of their respective regions.

Also, in 2016, African-Americans represented 79 percent of Detroit's population, over 50 percent in Cleveland, 43 percent in Cincinnati, 40 percent in Milwaukee, 27 percent in Columbus, Ohio, and 19 percent in Minneapolis.

These numbers and percentages confirm Harris' argument. The Midwest is not a white region. It has a significant black population. A candidate can win in the key states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by increasing the number and percent of black voters and by preventing voter suppression.

Therefore, a strategy that targets white working-class voters who flipped for Trump in 2016 is not only shortsighted but carries a distinctly racist odor.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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