Conyers native Doneel McNeal had never heard the name Stacey Abrams before May of this year, when she appeared on the “85 South Show” with Karlous Miller and DC Young Fly.
The 27-year-old McNeal, a truck driver who is also an up-and-coming music producer, was one of an estimated 300 people who showed up at the Historical Black University Creatives West End studio space in early September for the latest in a series of Abrams campaign events aimed at Black men like him.
The forum, hosted by radio personality Charlamagne tha God, featured a panel discussion with Abrams, civil rights attorney Francys Johnson and Atlanta rapper 21 Savage, who, days prior, encouraged his 13.6 million Instagram followers, including McNeil, to attend.
“When I saw that 21 and Charlamagne were collaborating with [Abrams] for an event, I was very interested,” McNeal said. “I actually got my friends to come out. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s something we need to be a part of.’”
At the campaign stop, Abrams responded to questions from reporters about recent reports suggesting her support among Black men continues to lag. In 2018, during her first gubernatorial run against Gov. Brian Kemp, Abrams received 88% of votes cast by Black men. That was nine points less than the 97% of Black women who voted for her.
The gender disparity among Abrams’s Black supporters is something political observers noted in 2018 and have continued to point out this year. The question remains, what’s driving the discrepancy? Abrams herself had a theory.
“We know that Black men can sometimes be more conservative, and it’s natural,” Abrams told Capital B Atlanta. “We’re not a monolithic race. People can vote for who they want to. But we should vote for what we need.”
With over 1.6 million new voters registered to vote this election cycle, Abrams has deduced that Black men could tip the scale in her favor on Nov. 8.
“If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia,” Abrams said during a June campaign event in Castleberry Hill, dubbed “Stacey and the Fellas.”
Mondale Robinson, a former political consultant turned mayor of Enfield, North Carolina, says the low engagement problem with Black male voters is real and something that needs to be addressed. In 2019, Robinson founded the Black Male Voter Project to increase the number of Black men who are “super voters,” which he defines as individuals who vote in every election cycle.
Robinson had a different explanation for Abrams’ challenges.
“The [level of attention paid to] Black women doesn’t exist for Black men,” he said. “That’s not a critique of how Black women are positioned. It’s a critique of how the party picks and chooses to segment our community.”
Over the years, groups like the Democratic Women’s Council, the League of Women Voters, and the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women have worked hard at engaging Black women in the state.
Up until recently, however, Black men haven’t received the same emphasis, according to Robinson.
“There are more resources in politics spent on the Black women’s vote than the Black men vote,” Robinson added. “The fact that Black male issues aren’t prioritized [is why] we find ourselves in this spot.”
For construction contractor Austin Jacques, 27, of Atlanta’s Washington Park neighborhood, those issues include building more affordable housing where Black men can own their homes, raise families, and build generational wealth.
Jacques, who was also in attendance at the Abrams campaign stop in West End, said Washington Park is one of the areas of the city where nearly all residential properties have been acquired by investors.
“Most of the people there do not own their homes,” he said. “They do not know the value of it. They rent. Not only do they rent things like houses, but they rent their phones.”
Grocery store employee Nate Desil, 20, of Powder Springs, who also attended the Abrams event, said creating better economic opportunities for Black men is at the top of his priority list. He said he’s not sure why Abrams isn’t resonating with other Black men.
“Me personally, I feel like what she’s saying, I understand and I believe in it,” he said.
Abrams’s campaign points out many of the issues raised by audience goers and men she’s met on the campaign trail are addressed in her Black Men’s Agenda policy proposals. Those include plans to offer more capital and contract opportunities to Black small businesses. Part of that includes establishing a $10 million small business investment fund, creating 20,000 apprenticeships, offering more support for first-time homeowners and providing them with financial education.
Abrams’ message and policies aren’t the problem, according to Melinee Calhoun, Georgia state organizing manager for the Black Voters Matter Fund. Calhoun said the campaign staff canvassing on Abrams’ behalf, at times, have had trouble establishing a rapport with Black voters, particularly those in rural areas. Residents have grown accustomed to canvassers only showing up in their communities ahead of elections. The approach can feel disingenuous.
“A lot of Black folks only hear [Abrams’s] messengers, the people coming to their doors,” Calhoun said. “You’re coming into this community, but I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. You may be sharing this awesome message, but it’s not connecting with Black people on the ground.”
Calhoun said negative perceptions of how President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have handled issues affecting the Black community, such as inflation and violent crime, have had a dampening effect on candidates like Abrams.
“Even though inflation might be coming down, there’s still a sting that Black people are living with,” Calhoun said. “A lot of voters aren’t watching CNN. They aren’t watching MSNBC. They aren’t coming to rallies. So those messages aren’t reaching them.”
Abrams and her campaign have continued to acknowledge the frustrations expressed by Black voters this year, but she argues many of the problems they face are the result of Republican leaders at the state level failing to address people’s needs.
She told Capital B Atlanta she’s the only candidate in this year’s gubernatorial race with plans to guarantee access to health care, address Georgia’s affordable housing crisis and invest tax dollars in “our people” instead of just the wealthy.
“That is the message I think resonates with everyone, especially Black men,” she said.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Stacey Abrams and Doneel McNeal.