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What are Black voters looking for in US foreign policy?

What are Black voters looking for in US foreign policy?

This study shows African Americans are very sensitive to how overseas wars can impact their communities at home.

North America

Conventional wisdom would have it that presidential elections are not decided on foreign policy, and that Black Americans, like the majority of the American population, vote primarily on domestic issues.

Both statements are partially true. However, based on a recent survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment’s American Statecraft Program, African Americans do not vote primarily on foreign policy, but they are paying attention to how candidates describe the US’s role in the world. In other words, foreign policy may not be the deciding factor for how the masses of Black Americans vote in 2024, but it stands to have an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout.

The Carnegie Endowment survey, comprised of a representative sample of Black Americans, revealed that economy and jobs registered as the most important issue with 29 % of respondents selecting that option. This finding tracks with a recent polling that found that the majority of Americans view the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Considering that increased inflation and the overall cost of living has placed hardships on many American families, this shouldn’t come as a surprise..

Our survey contained three options related to foreign policy: National Security, Immigration (which some argue cuts across international and domestic politics), and US foreign policy/role of the U.S .in the world. None of these choices cracked double digits. National Security received 5% of the vote, followed by immigration at 3%, rounded out by the U.S.’s role in the world at 2%.

Despite these findings, evidence shows that Black Americans can see the importance of global developments, even when facing domestic issues. Respondents were asked if a President’s foreign policy agenda matters to them when they vote. Interestingly, four in ten (39%) respondents said that it is “very important” and a plurality (44%) reported that it is “somewhat important.”

Across party lines, 43% of both Black Democrats (who comprised 70% of the sample) and Black Republicans reported that a president’s foreign policy agenda mattered a great deal when they vote.

Education attainment proved salient here, with 59% of African Americans with a postgraduate degree reporting that a president’s foreign policy platform was “very important” when voting compared to 39% of all Black respondents who felt the same way. The same held true for respondents’ familiarity with foreign policy issues. Forty five percent of Black Americans with postgraduate education reported being “very familiar” with foreign policy matters compared to 25% of all Black respondents that reported similarly.

It should be noted, regardless of political affiliation, two of the top three most important issues to African American voters — economy and healthcare — have an international component. For instance, jobs and economic growth are impacted by trade agreements and foreign supply lines, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic (which disproportionally impacted communities of color) required significant international cooperation.

Even for foreign policy topics that did not rank high for respondents, such as immigration and National Security, there is evidence that these issues will weigh heavily on the minds of some Black voters. Take for example, the crisis at the southern border. While few African Americans see migrants as a critical threat (only 29% of African Americans see immigrants and refugees as a critical threat compared to 44% of White Americans), some African American communities may view the accommodation of migrants into historically underserved neighborhoods as reason to be concerned with Biden’s handling of illegal immigration and border security.

For instance, as the city of Chicago plans to turn a community center in the predominantly Black northwest neighborhood of Galewood into a migrant housing facility, Chicago CBS reported that many Black residents feel their already scarce community resources are being allocated elsewhere. One resident stated “the thing that we’re most concerned about is our children, our Black children, the football, the soccer, and all the things that they do… and now they’re going to take this part beautiful part and give it to migrants.”

On the topic of national security and US military intervention, only two in ten (20%) Black Americans are supportive of possibly sending troops to assist Ukraine or help Taiwan defend itself from a hypothetical Chinese invasion.

This, of course, is partly due to the community's perennial concern with the material and human costs associated with major war. Moreover, research conducted by the Chicago Council for International Affairs reveals that 46% of Black Americans feel the US should urge Ukraine to settle for peace as soon as possible so that the costs aren’t so great for American households, compared to 38% of the American public that feel the same way.

According to the numbers, Black Americans are supportive of assistance to Ukraine, but many are cautious that an incipient forever war would potentially require imbalanced human and material costs from the community, or even draw attention and resources from domestic challenges. Perhaps it will prove beneficial if messaging around support for Ukraine for “as long as it takes” is coupled with a peace plan or pathways towards de-escalation.

On collective action issues such as climate change, a majority of African Americans (54 %) believe the US should take the lead in combating the issue, at an even higher rate than White Americans (42 %).

With concerns regarding Black voter enthusiasm and turnout in the 2024 presidential election, it might be beneficial for candidates addressing Black voters to tie together how mutual cooperation on shared global challenges will impact the economic wellbeing of the Black community.

One potential solution to solving the disconnect between Black voters and the foreign policy establishment lies in connecting with Black American civil society. The same manner in which Vice President Kamala Harris tapped into the Black sorority network (which serve as some of the Black community’s oldest advocacy organizations) to galvanize the Black vote, it can prove beneficial for political parties to connect with historically Black fraternities and sororities and explicate how foreign policy translates into domestic wellbeing for the Black American community.

Much more in terms of foreign policy messaging will be required, of course, but it is a first step.

What is clear is that solely using messaging that addresses Black American domestic concerns without addressing America’s role in the world will leave many Black voters feeling they are getting more of the same.

Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

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