Among African American Women Voters, Optimism Is Its Own Superpower
According to BU political scientist Christine Slaughter, Black women are driven to vote by their belief society can be improved—even though they’re skeptical the changes will benefit them
There’s a lot at stake this Election Day. Republicans and Democrats are fighting for control of state houses, governors’ offices, and Congress—with Republicans needing just one seat to gain control of the Senate and less than 10 seats to flip the House. The results could dramatically impact the number of states that will outlaw abortion, a driving issue for Democratic voters after the Supreme Court overturned national protections for abortion access. For Republican voters, immigration and crime are top-line issues, according to the Pew Research Center. Both sides are predicting catastrophe should the other win.
“It’s very easy to fall into the doom and gloom of what’s occurring and our political landscape,” says Christine Slaughter, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science. There are a lot of emotions that can drive people to the polls—hope, anger, fear, belief in a particular candidate or ideology—but Slaughter is particularly interested in the political behavior and participation of Black voters in the United States, especially their optimism.
“How do people remain hopeful, remain steadfast, have an outlook that can lead them to want to enact change versus to be motivated by anger?” she says, especially as minority voters face more structural barriers to participate in elections, like voter ID laws, limitations on voting hours, reductions in voting locations, language barriers, and other voter suppression tactics. This has happened as women of color increasingly shape and influence election outcomes. In her research, Slaughter studies how factors like resilience, optimism, and pessimism shape political decisions and actions.
A Healthier Democracy
A good dose of optimism is linked to a healthier life. And, it turns out, being more optimistic and hopeful about the future can lead to a healthier democracy too.
Slaughter’s latest paper, for PHILLIS: The Journal for Research on African American Women, which is published by the Delta Research and Educational Foundation of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, investigated whether Black women who are more optimistic engage in politics differently than Black women who are more pessimistic. According to the paper, there is reason to believe that optimism is particularly potent among Black women willing to participate in the political process.
Slaughter, who was awarded a Moorman-Simon Interdisciplinary Career Development Professorship this fall, analyzed data collected in 2012 from the Outlook on Life Surveys, which polled political and social attitudes in the United States. There were 1,595 respondents, with 485 African American women, 380 African American men, 286 white women, and 315 white men. The survey, though 10 years old, asked the questions Slaughter was searching for about optimism and had an oversampling of Black women—a rare find in political science studies, she says.
Among Black women, she found that optimism was associated with an increase in different kinds of participation—including signing petitions, participating in a community organization, handing out flyers, and voting—more so than with white men and women in the survey. “This suggests that Black women who are optimistic about the future of the United States are also willing to engage in the political process, which ultimately brings about change in society,” the paper states.
She also found that the African American women who participated in the survey were the most optimistic about the future of the country compared to white men, white women, and African American men—but the least optimistic about their own futures. This is surprising, Slaughter says, and leads to questions about how people might feel their lives will or won’t change after a big election, or how their communities might change compared to their own lives.
Slaughter isn’t sure why Black women are optimistic about the nation’s prospects, yet pessimistic about their own—though she speculates it could be a result of coming out of the 2008 recession, or the timing of the questions presented to survey participants—but aims to dig into the reasons in future studies. For now, she says, there are lessons for those trying to win voters to their cause. Her article points out that while there is distrust among African Americans about the US political system, messages of optimism—like former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan of “Yes we can”—may mobilize African American women voters in ways that are underutilized.
A lot has obviously changed in the 10 years since the survey—two presidential elections, a record-breaking number of women elected to the US House of Representatives, Kamala Harris becoming the first woman and woman of color to be elected vice president, extremists attempting to subvert election results with an unprecedented attack on the US Capitol, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But, says Slaughter, a lot of core issues for voters remain the same.
“In 2012, we have murder of Black men by police and vigilantes that brought race into the national conversation, and at the same time we were financially recovering from an economic recession. In 2022, we have widespread inflation, an overreliance on the gig economy, vast economic inequality, the housing and homelessness crisis here in Boston—these are issues that have strung through 10 years,” she says.
Holding Politicians Accountable
Some of Slaughter’s past research found that Black Americans living in intergenerational poverty were more likely to vote in elections compared to similarly situated white Americans, countering political science theories that suggest poverty leads to withdrawing from political engagement. That led Slaughter to question, “What is it about African Americans, despite having fewer resources, that folks are still willing to participate in the political system?” she says, which then led to her work about optimism.
And with this year’s midterm elections, Slaughter hopes that minority voters in the United States can remain optimistic in a way that will translate to more voter participation and engagement.
“We, as voters, should be vigilant in observing which races, especially local races, [center] around the issues that matter, such as student debt cancellation, living wages, and affordable housing,” she says. “We have to ensure that the policy priorities of our elected officials represent our values as voters, and, beyond participating in elections, we have to hold them accountable in doing so.”