Roughly 20 people gathered at Lugar Plaza outside of the City-County Building on July 13 to protest what they saw as the latest example of a local Democratic Party that’s too secretive and doesn’t listen to the people.
They chanted and held signs demanding that Jason Larrison, who was recently appointed to an empty seat on the city-county council, resign.
Imani Wills, a 32-year-old library worker, was among those whose frustration has reached a tipping point.
Party insiders choosing Larrison over Karla Lopez-Owens was “another brick laid in the wall,” she said.
But like so many Black people, Wills grew up in a home that supports and votes for Democrats. She still votes for Democrats for the most part, though she also has strong criticisms of the party at both a local and national level.
“I feel like for so long, the Democratic Party has just kind of banked on the fact that ‘we’re not Republicans’ kind of thing,” she said, “and that’s just getting really old.”
This kind of discontent appears to be more common — and Larrison’s appointment has been a rallying point — but it’s unclear what this will actually lead to.
At the national level, it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of Black voters leaving the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party.
Zoltan Hajnal, author of “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics,” writes that public opinion surveys over the last 50 years about government spending show Black voters have their preferences met at basically the same rate as whites when there is a Democratic president and Congress. Black voters are at the biggest disadvantage when there is a Republican president and Congress.
“I don’t see any substantial movement of Blacks away from the Democratic Party,” Hajnal said in an interview. “As long as the Republican Party is such a stark contrast, there’s really nowhere for Black Democrats to go.”
That’s the way Charla Joyce, a 32-year-old professor, feels about the party.
Most Black people believe the Democratic Party is largely racist, Joyce said, but that doesn’t mean there’s an automatic home in the Republican Party, which she said doesn’t even allow conversations about racism, for example, to move forward because they’re stuck on debating whether racism is even real.
“In order to maintain safety, we have to let some stuff go and hope to push the Democratic Party toward addressing our needs,” Joyce said.
She votes for Democrats and considers herself a Democrat “most of the time.” If she ever did vote for a Republican, Joyce said most of her friends and family wouldn’t approve.
Wills said she’s had conversations with her family about not voting for certain Democratic presidential candidates, but they respond by talking about the Supreme Court and other institutions they feel Republicans would harm.
This is part of the reason why authors Ismail White and Chryl Laird say Black voters continue to overwhelmingly support Democrats, a case they present in their book, “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.”
They refer to the process as “racialized social constraint,” where voting for Democrats is an expected norm of Black political behavior that gets reinforced through social sanctioning.
The Indiana Republican Party is well aware that many Black voters don’t consider the GOP to be a real option. The party recently announced a new initiative — the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series — to increase minority engagement and ultimately create more minority leaders within the party.
The state GOP’s director of diversity engagement, Whitley Yates, is Black and said in an interview people are tired of “political platitudes” without progress. Yates, 31, grew up with parents and grandparents who voted for Democrats but said she noticed that cities with Democratic leaders are where Black communities were often worse off.
Black voters over time have become less supportive of government programs and interventions targeted at racial minorities, according to American National Election Studies surveys. Even among Black Democrats, fewer than one-third identify as liberal, according to Pew Research Center, and 55% say it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.
As Yates pointed out, those are qualities that seem to align well with the Republican Party.
Of course, a rightward shift to the GOP isn’t the only possibility for disaffected Black Democrats.
Doris Jones, a 35-year-old carpenter, was at the protest against Larrison’s appointment handing out issues of Liberation, the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s newspaper. But Jones said she still considers herself a Democrat “in a way,” even though she also thinks the party is corrupt.
“A part of me feels a certain way toward Democrats, but I’m basically with my comrades,” she said.
If anyone was going to leave the Democratic Party and have a chance of avoiding pushback, it would be Belinda Drake, who many felt was treated unfairly by the local party by not letting her and another Black candidate run as Democrats for city-county council seats in 2019.
The party said Drake didn’t vote in previous primary elections, even though she indicated on campaign forms that she had. Drake disputed the party’s claim, and the party had skirted that requirement for candidates in the past.
Still, Drake has remained a Democrat and is currently running to represent District 32 in the Indiana Senate.
“You have to be in the game to change it,” she said, citing her political activity that dates back to interning for Rep. André Carson a decade ago.
Drake said she understands the frustration from some following the party’s appointment of Larrison over Lopez-Owens but believes people should channel that energy to bring change.
“Don’t be so discouraged to the point where you lose sight of what it means to stay involved and stay engaged,” she said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.