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Joe Biden, Meet Black Voters

The former vice president and current Democratic frontrunner is coasting with the Democrats’ most loyal electorate, and that isn’t good for anyone involved

DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 10: Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks on stage during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. The event was hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks on stage during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. The event was hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, the fast-food chain that had America going insane for its new chicken sandwich for a minute there, is fresh out. But they promise it’ll be back sometime soon, so maybe I’ll have a chance to see what the hype is about. I just hope no one mentions brings up voting again when it does.

A few ignorant folks took it upon themselves to soil this lighthearted cultural moment for the rest of us, insinuating that African Americans were more eager to line up for fried chicken than to cast a ballot. Though the black turnout dipped by 7% in 2016, some of which was due to apathy, ignoring foreign interference or the maimed Voting Rights Act would be foolish. But while the notion that black people don’t vote is fictional, the anxiety that can generate within us is real, since black folks get blame for a lot of things that aren’t our fault in America, even Donald Trump. 

This is as good a reason as any that the black electorate is not only being more vocal in the 2020 primary, but already starting to coalesce around a candidate. Joe Biden, the former vice president under Barack Obama, enjoys a wide lead over the other candidates among African American voters nationwide and in some key states. 

They have held firm despite Biden’s own discriminatory 1994 crime bill, a record rife with disturbing remarks about race and associations with segregationist lawmakers, and a lack of sufficient atonement for his mistreatment of Anita Hill in 1991. Biden is also coasting, particularly with older black Americans, despite being an 76-year-old white man running alongside two major African American candidates, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

The Washington Post reported recently on African American voters in Pennsylvania who are more determined to exercise their right to vote in 2020. One Philadelphia pastor explained well why Biden — still the overall consensus front-runner despite an outlier Monmouth poll this week that had him sliding behind two of his top-tier competitors — continues to enjoy such overwhelming and unyielding black support.

“What we fundamentally need is someone who can energize our community to come out,” said the Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. “I don’t think any of the candidates will help us with a Barack Obama-style turnout, but I think Biden is like getting back into old comfortable shoes that will allow us to get our footing back.”

This perspective is emblematic of much of what I’ve heard throughout my reporting on the primaries from black voters, particularly older ones. It may seem like an understandable perspective, tending to default more to the need to rid the government of Trump’s stink and restore some normalcy. Probing a bit more deeply, however, the notion of using an election purely to restore comfort is rather unnerving and self-destructive, precisely the wrong attitude at a crucial juncture for African Americans and other marginalized communities.

Black America at-large became politically animated in a new way during the Obama era, both by the president in office and by the tragic events that precipitated the emergence of black liberation movements such as Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, and others during his tenure. Even though they don’t make the evening news as often during the Trump presidency, our communities and the activists within them have had to become, arguably, even more politically vigilant in these last few years. The administration’s conscious moves to exacerbate discrimination have been coupled with presidential rhetoric and policy decisions that have given freer rein to white-nationalist extremists, contributing to a commensurate rise in violence and harassment. 

Black activists and the communities they represent haven’t cowered or staggered in this Trumpian moment. That’s why I can’t really grasp why so many folks like Pastor Waller evidently believe that we need those old, comfortable shoes that Biden represents. Why would black citizens who have been so energized now be suddenly so disoriented by the Trump years that they would require an avatar of the Obama era to re-orient themselves toward a more hopeful and constructive path?

If being a figurehead of these supposed good times past is all black Americans ask of Biden, then that is all he will be entitled to deliver to us. And in this country, especially after one term of the Trump administration, black people will sure as hell need a lot more than that from the next president.

That is why it is troubling to see Biden enjoying his black support with so little done to earn it. Two new polls have Biden up 13 and 18 points, and the former vice president doesn’t get there without the support of arguably the party’s most loyal constituency. Though a New York Times report indicates that both he and his campaign recognize the value of that backing from black voters, we have seen little proof thus far from the campaign that their outreach to communities will bear much fruit in terms of concrete results.

Biden rarely appears in front of majority-black audiences or focuses his public remarks on issues of specific concern to their communities. His campaign has reached out to some prominent African American activist leaders and ignored others, but the organizers with whom I’ve spoken told me that Biden’s campaign either hasn’t contacted them at all or if they have, the former vice president’s ideas have been much too moderate to achieve any sort of social-justice impact that would be meaningful. 

That includes the comprehensive civil-rights platform Biden proposed in July — which included a new $20 billion grant program that would spur states to reduce incarceration and crime. It ostensibly aims to atone for one of the key negative consequences of his 1994 crime bill, which just two months prior, he incorrectly defended, saying, “This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration, it did not generate mass incarceration.” (In a 2015 interview, Clinton himself admitted that it did.) In June, he chimed in with another defense, telling an audience member at an event that “you’ve been conditioned to say” that it “is a bad bill.”

However, Biden’s opponent, Elizabeth Warren, who has presented several plans that would benefit African Americans directly but enjoys low percentages of black support thus far, can testify to the fact that it will take more than good, reparative policy to entice black voters to support them in the primary. The rest of the field is scrambling to decipher this black calculus so they too can rise to the top of the polls. But unlike Biden, none of them were Obama’s vice president. 

Perhaps the former vice president appears to believe it is that previous familiarity with black voters which is getting him by. He spoke with a group of black journalists recently and said something that I’m sure he thinks sounds like an embrace of black voters. To me, it came off more like a shrug in our direction. 

“People know me, or at least they think they know me, after all this time,” Biden said, per Astead Herndon of the New York Times. “They have a sense of who my character is and who I am — warts and all.” 

Campaigns shouldn’t be about what voters already know about a candidate, though. They need to be learning new things all the time: platforms, facts, strategies to win. Granted, Biden has been in government for so long that the past may seemingly outweigh any new information, but every single aspect of his campaign appears to be sourced from his past. (This includes a new Biden health care ad that promotes the ACA accomplishment while invoking the tragic deaths of his own children.)

As Biden rambled on during a New Hampshire campaign appearance last week about the possibility of Obama being assassinated, I considered how that would have played in a majority-black setting. (Badly for him, would be my guess.) That led me to wonder why we haven’t seen much of him thus far in this campaign talking to the black communities that he told the Times he has “never, ever, ever, in my entire life, had a circumstance where I have felt uncomfortable,” introducing himself and his policies to our voters? 

I cannot help but wonder whether he and his campaign consider it too risky to put Biden in front of black folks who may have a particular image of him as a sidekick to their beloved Obama, and then he opens his mouth and they’re all confronted with the reality. 

This is why it remains so baffling and infuriating to see voters and press alike rush to pick a Democratic nominee, ignoring faux pas by Biden and other candidates either because Trump has lowered the bar or they believe noting such errors helps the president. Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby chastised his fellow journalists for even covering the Obama-assassination quip, retreating to the rhetorical crutch of “gaffe” when no one really knows what Biden is doing or what exactly is happening with him just yet. 

That’s rubbish. This is a time for vetting, not settling. Some communities can afford to move with haste and just pick any one of these nominees, because another four years of Trump won’t matter to them. Black voters, by and large, are not as fortunate.

However, the way that both black support has calcified around Biden and the way that the press has shied away from concentrating on his increasingly frequent blunders on the campaign trail have led to a mentality that his “electability” is not merely something that his campaign has made up out of whole cloth, but a narrative being imposed by fiat. Any concerns that arise are met with “but Trump is insane/corrupt/unfit/etc.” and the bar continues to go further subterranean. 

All of this hurts both Biden and the Democratic electorate. Biden has run an Orson Welles campaign thus far, offering a return to the past where slipping into those old, comfortable shoes sounds like a good thing. We were wearing those shoes when Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland were killed; when a white nationalist terrorist struck a church in Charleston; when the architects of a financial crisis escaped scot free; when America still had enough rocky road in it for our black feet to hurt in those “old, comfortable shoes” the pastor talked about. So I don’t see how a return to that is any great shakes, in and of itself. And Biden, if he knew what was best for his chances, would be saying the same.

Neither Biden nor any other candidate is weakened by a primary process in which voters get to know them better. This is not all just about informing us so that we’ll know who to pick on Election Day. This process is about ensuring accountability for whomever wins the presidency. Black voters, in particular, cannot allow a candidate like Biden to coast on his fame. Especially since we know that he likely won’t the one blamed if he loses next November.

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