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Barbershop: How Black Votes Frame The Abortion Issue


A number of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are in South Carolina this weekend to make a special pitch to African Americans at the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum. The candidates are addressing a range of issues. But right now, we are going to focus on one sensitive matter of public policy. That is abortion, as a number of states are moving to restrict access to the procedure.

Recently, NPR, "PBS NewsHour" and Marist polled Americans about their views. And one finding that stood out is that Republican women tend to be the party's strongest supporters of restrictions on abortion, and a theory about that being that women tend to be more religious than men, and people tend to oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds.

Well, that got us to thinking. According to the Pew Research Center data, African American adults are more likely than any other racial group to regularly attend religious services. They are also more likely to say religion is very important in their lives. And data from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that just over half of African Americans believe having an abortion is wrong. However, the same data shows 67% of black Americans believe that abortion should still be legal in all or most cases.

And that got us wondering why African American voters, even those who see themselves as deeply religious and even identify as pro-life, tend to frame the issue as voters so differently than similarly religious white voters. So we decided to address this issue with two scholars who've studied this topic. Joining me today are Andra Gillespie. She's a professor of political science at Emory University. She studies black political participation and actually has experience in polling.

Welcome back.


MARTIN: And also with us - Eddie Glaude, Jr. He is a professor at Princeton University where he teaches courses in religion and African American Studies.

Professor Glaude, welcome back to you as well.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR: Oh, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you, professor Gillespie, because we actually talked about this, you and I, a couple of years ago on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. At the time, you were saying that black voters see themselves as conservative, but it doesn't always manifest itself in voting. So I'm going to ask you, how would you describe how African American voters frame the issue of abortion?

GILLESPIE: I think it's important to consider the ways that certain issues might be important to voters but may not be salient in terms of making voting decisions. And so the thing that we were talking about a couple of years ago relates to the fact that, you know, a nontrivial portion of African Americans will identify ideologically as conservative, but yet they still vote Democratic. And so part of that is, is that their conservatism looks different than white conservatism.

And the other thing is that race is actually salient, and so they have chosen the political party that they think is best on civil rights issues, and so that party also happens to be the party that's pro-choice. So they've already reconciled that contradiction by thinking about what is going to be better for the black community and not necessarily privileging what their personal opinions are going to be about whether or not they'd personally choose to consider an abortion.

MARTIN: And, professor Glaude, how would you describe how African Americans see this issue theologically, given that African Americans tend to be Protestants, they belong to all different Protestant, you know, traditions. But how would you say how they see it theologically?

GLAUDE: Well, I mean, it would vary. I mean, it would - you know, it would be very difficult to say that African Americans generally hold this view about abortion. You could - I could imagine, say, conservative evangelicals holding a particular view. I could imagine, for example, Reverend Barber, who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, but who holds that a woman's right to choose is extraordinarily important. But I could also imagine someone like T.D. Jakes - right? - who would hold a position that - perhaps that abortion was morally egregious.

So it all depends. So it's very difficult to paint particularly African American Christians with these broad brushes, particularly when we move from measuring their voting decision at the booth to what they're deciding in their personal lives.

MARTIN: But how would you understand the fact that - you know, the fact is, the general public - if you asked people in the general public, most people would say they see themselves as - they have a mixed identity. They see themselves as being, you know, pro-choice and pro-life - I mean, using the terms that people prefer even if those are not necessarily politically neutral terms. But majorities of African Americans identify as both pro-life and pro-choice. How do you - I mean, in fact, like, going back to the Public Religion Research Institute poll that I cited earlier, more than seven in 10 black Americans say that the term pro-life describes them somewhat or very well.

GLAUDE: Right.

MARTIN: But they also say that pro-choice describes them somewhat or very well. So how do you understand that? Do you understand that to mean that people may hold a personal moral conviction, but they don't think it's appropriate necessarily to bring that into the public sphere?

GLAUDE: Right. I mean, in one way - on one level, I would echo what professor Gillespie just laid out, right? That is to say that it is very clear that people hold certain commitments that abortion is wrong in their personal lives - that for them, they would not choose to have an abortion. But they may very well not hold the view that government should be denying women the right to choose.

MARTIN: So this leads us to the present moment. There are laws that have been passed in Georgia and Alabama restricting access to abortion. Both of these states have large black populations that are politically engaged. In part - you know, it is understood that part of the reason that these laws have been pushed aggressively is to try to create the political environment that would require the Supreme Court to revisit this issue. Did either of you have a sense of how you feel this issue is going to play out in the African American community, among African American voters in these places?

GILLESPIE: One, I think party is more important here. I think people have already sorted and chosen their party identification based on what ideological commitments they think are most salient. And for people for whom issues related to life and reproductive choice are paramount, they've probably already decided to be Democrats or Republicans on that issue. And so their prior partisan identification is likely going to continue to be more predictive of what their vote choice is. It's already baked into the cake. I mean, I agree that I think abortion is going to be a more salient national issue now than it was in 2016 or in 2012 or even in 2008. But I think people's commitments are kind of already there.

And for those African Americans who, you know, might be more religiously conservative but who are troubled by, you know, racism, who are troubled by voting rights, who are troubled by the president's incendiary rhetoric, I think they've probably already reconciled the fact that their views on those issues are not necessarily in step with their views on reproductive choice issues.

MARTIN: Both of you have spent a lot of times studying and discussing the ways that African Americans parse and understand and analyze certain issues. I'm wondering if you think this particular group of voters has something to offer other voters about how to discuss this issue. Does that make sense? What do you think, professor Gillespie?

GILLESPIE: So I go back to some of the soundbites of floor debates that we heard in places like Georgia and Alabama and Louisiana over the last few months about this bill. And so, by and large, blacks who are democratic, you know, opposed these bills. But some of the discourse that actually came, particularly from black women legislators, was about kind of calling out the incomplete arguments about trying to preserve a culture of life.

And so when you think about the legislators who came out and spoke about people wanting to protect life in the womb but not having done enough legislatively to try to protect and preserve life outside of the womb - so whether we're talking about providing prenatal care or providing, you know, health care for children, being able to provide social services for folks who, you know, need a hand up and those kinds of things - I think, you know, that was an attempt to try to shift the conversation to a more holistic discussion of life.

I think that, you know, that's an important conversation to have. Whether or not it actually resonated and actually penetrated the discussion yet I think is still an open question. But I think that was definitely a call to be consistent and to recognize that, you know, we shouldn't be using issues like this as kind of pawns to sort of win points, you know, for a short-term - you know, attempt to try to be righteous on one issue when we are ignoring all the other issues that are directly and indirectly related to it.

MARTIN: And Andra Gillespie is a professor of political science at Emory University. She is the author most recently of "Race And The Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols And Hope." Eddie Glaude, Jr. is a professor at Princeton University. He is the author most recently of "Democracy In Black: How Race Still Enslaves The American Soul." Thank you both so much for joining us.

GLAUDE: Thank you.

GILLESPIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.