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What Do Black Americans Think About Roe v. Wade—and Why

The data and the dread.
May 17, 2022
What Do Black Americans Think About <i>Roe v. Wade</i>—and Why
Anti-abortion activists participate in the "March for Life," an annual event to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the US, outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, January 29, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2016, I conducted a study to examine how the black vote might become less lopsided in presidential elections. Using a survey experiment, I was able to measure how much certain factors—the economy, healthcare costs, the violent crime rate, etc.—influenced black Americans’ voting choices to see which mix of conditions would produce more competition for their vote. The results were mostly unsurprising: For black Americans, as with the general population, the political party cues were so strong that they far outweighed every other consideration.

There was, however, one rather unexpected insight. The political issue that most influenced black voters’ choice was abortion. Supporting a pro-choice presidential candidate was more important to black voters than the unemployment rate, obtaining new civil rights legislation, a candidate’s race, and every other presented factor except party.

I was reminded of this finding following the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. And, like most issues in black America, the politics of abortion are not nearly as straightforward as the associated voting behavior.

Recent polling offers a glimpse at black Americans’ nuanced and complex views on the topic. According to a YouGov/Economist poll conducted last week, nearly 1 in 5 black respondents characterize themselves as pro-life; a third say that abortion should be banned either after conception or after 6 weeks; and more than a third say abortion should be illegal or only permitted in extenuating circumstances (such as when the life of the mother is in danger).

And yet, that same poll shows that the only group that matches the share of black Americans holding consistently progressive views on abortion access are college-educated white women. A new Pew Research poll shows that more black Americans (68 percent) believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases than white (59 percent) and Hispanic Americans (60 percent)—Asian Americans were the most pro-choice at 74 percent.

Even when accounting for other factors, like class or religiosity, black Americans remain more progressive. They are more likely to be pro-choice than both those making under $50K and those making between $50K and $100K. And more black Protestants are pro-choice than white evangelicals, white Protestants, and Catholics. However, fewer black voters who are Democrats or who lean Democratic are supportive (75 percent) of legal abortion in all or most cases than their white partisan peers (86 percent).

There are three primary things to take from this mishmash of polls and voting preferences. The first is the most complicated because the present-day prevalence of pro-life views among black Americans has a long history.

Research shows that in the decades immediately following the civil rights era, black Americans were more conservative on abortion than white Americans, in large part because of the traditionalist gender views held by black men that made them less supportive of it than white men and women and much less so than black women. This lower level of support was considered to be rooted in black culture since income, education, religiosity, and a host of other factors could not explain the difference between black and white Americans. Indeed, studies suggest that black women who give high salience to their racial identity relative to their gender identity show less support for abortion.

The cultural phenomenon is almost certainly explained in part by a distrust of medical and governmental institutions. Black American history is replete with forced pregnancies, lynchings resulting from false accusations of sexual assaults, involuntary sterilizations, and being unwittingly subjected to medical malpractice, as in the Tuskegee Experiment. This history of discrimination has tangible effects today, including causing lower COVID-19 vaccination rates initially among black Americans.

In the last two or three decades, though, black Americans have become more pro-choice, a result of a significant shift toward pro-choice policies by black men. Political scientists Evelyn Simien and Rosalee Clawson found that black men, in a show of what the scholars referred to as “racial solidarity” and “black feminist consciousness” with black women, were increasingly likely to support those policies perceived to be women’s issues when such issues do not pit racial identity against gender identity, such as abortion.

This latter insight helps explain the framing often put forward by pro-life black Republicans, not to mention the conspiracy theorists in the black counterpublic. They point to the racial disparities in abortion: A higher percentage of the women who have abortions in the United States are black (38 percent in 2019, according to CDC data) than white (33 percent) or Hispanic (21 percent); and for every 1,000 live births to black women, there were 386 abortions in 2019, compared to 117 abortions for every 1,000 live births to white women, and 170 abortions for every 1,000 live births to Hispanic women. Pro-life conservatives often liken the resulting fewer black babies born each year to eugenics and population control (as Justice Clarence Thomas did in a 2019 concurring opinion). By making the issue about group survival, as was noted on the podcast of a black Republican congressional candidate, the racial identity is primed and may push some number to adopt slightly more conservative positions on abortion.

While this history provides some context for why a third of black Americans may report holding conservative views on abortion, the second takeaway from the research helps explain why the vast majority hold the most liberal views.

For black America, the revocation of a woman’s constitutionally protected right to choose to have an abortion raises questions about what other rights might be suddenly found revocable. In this way, Roe v. Wade cannot be considered separately from the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder that weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Shelby, an issue that was supposed to be largely settled—the importance of federal “preclearance” protections for voting rights in places with a history of racially discriminatory electoral practices—was suddenly deemed unconstitutional, despite Congress having reauthorized the act on multiple occasions with large bipartisan majorities. As civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill recently noted, Alito’s declaration that overturning Roe appropriately returns the abortion issue to the legislature “makes it impossible to read the draft opinion without also thinking about the Court’s recent, devastating voting rights jurisprudence.”

It harks back to nine decades of being denied the right to vote due to race despite the Fifteenth Amendment explicitly forbidding the practice. And it has some commentators wondering aloud about how the legal argument for undoing Roe might be just the first step in a series of reversals of other landmark cases, like Loving v. Virginia (especially after a Republican senator a few weeks ago questioned the legalization of interracial marriage, which he would later walk back). Some pundits may judge these worries to be unnecessary alarmism, but to a people whose access to constitutional rights has followed the drunken staggering of two-steps-forward-one step-back, the concern could not be more real.

This leads directly into the third takeaway: Black Americans holding more conservative views on abortion are not ripe for Republican candidates to pick off the Democratic electoral ledger. Winning 1 in 5 black voters has been a GOP pipe dream since Lee Atwater made the claim in the 1980s that reaching the benchmark would give Republicans a permanent governing majority. But abortion will not help the party improve it historically poor performance with black voters over the last two decades. I used to think leaning into social conservatism might be a viable strategy for Republicans hoping to attract black voters, but that ain’t it—never mind that the party itself is muddling through a Trump-induced identity crisis.

Whatever happens next, it will likely follow the trajectory of what has already happened. Assuming the Alito draft opinion does not significantly change, black Americans are likely to view the repeal of a woman’s constitutional right to choose as part of continuum of uncertainty and hold Republicans responsible for the ensuing anxieties it creates around other rights. And the pragmatism and conservatism within black America will continue to battle for space and primacy in a leftward-moving Democratic party.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.