Washington – Joe Biden’s political resurrection in the race for the Democratic nomination was due largely to overwhelming support from black voters. Yet racial tensions laid bare by nationwide protests have revealed a problem for Biden in the November election — he doesn’t excite younger black voters who want change, not just a sympathetic ear.
Biden’s African American supporters have been urging him to offer concrete solutions to the trifecta of crises hitting black voters in 2020 — they are disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus, the recession and the police brutality that drew them into the streets. And they say not being Donald Trump isn’t enough.
People of color are expressing “anger, exhaustion and a real hunger for change,” said Aimee Allison, president of She the People, which focuses on elevating women of color in politics. “But I’m not hearing people excited about Democrats and, frankly, about the Biden campaign. Joe Biden has to step up and talk directly about racial justice and what his plan as president would be.”
The support of younger black voters is crucial to Biden as the pandemic may squelch older voters’ turnout in key cities like Detroit and Philadelphia. And there are numerous states trending Democratic, like Georgia and Texas, where the young black vote could make a difference.
Like any Democratic presidential candidate in the last 50 years, Biden is in no danger of losing black support. But African Americans must also be enthusiastic enough to turn out, and activists warn that some younger black voters are uninspired by Biden’s candidacy and are skeptical he will deliver real change.
Trump has tried to argue that the strong economy he oversaw before the pandemic struck was reason enough for black voters to support him. But his response to the protesters this week, calling violent demonstrators “thugs” and threatening to use the military, likely shattered any hope of their votes.
In data collected by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape and analyzed by The Washington Post, in April and May, 68 percent of black registered voters under 30 said they planned to vote for Biden. In 2016, 85 percent of young black voters backed Hillary Clinton, while Barack Obama’s numbers in 2008 and 2012 were 10 points higher and turnout of young black voters surged. Biden’s overall numbers with black voters are much higher, boosted by strong support among older people. He was backed by 89 percent of black registered voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday.
Some black Democrats say Biden has to tackle his Senate record head on, including a forceful denunciation of the 1994 crime bill. Rival Bernie Sanders, who remains popular with younger voters of all races, flogged Biden during the primaries with his authorship of a bill that many believe in retrospect made the criminal justice system worse for African Americans. It was widely supported at the time by the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats.
“It worked in some areas but it failed in others,” Biden said in July, pointing to the Violence Against Women Act and the assault-weapons ban as two important measures that were in the bill. “Like every major change you go back and make it better.” He has not addressed it amid the fresh discussion of criminal justice in the week since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
“Joe Biden absolutely must atone for a political record that many would say has resulted in the police brutality that they’re experiencing in their communities,” said Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury. “He needs to make an acknowledgment that because of his actions people got hurt. But he also needs to talk about how he will make it better.”
Symone Sanders, a Biden senior adviser, defended his approach.
“This notion that Joe Biden has to say more — he has said more and will continue to say more,” she said. “It’s not as though he has not addressed some of the feelings that people have about the criminal justice system.”
She said there are still positive elements of the bill that weren’t “fully realized, including community-oriented policing and drug courts.” She also noted that there were some aspects of the bill, including funding for states to build prisons, that Biden opposed at the time.
Others want Biden to outline a clear plan to overhaul federal standards around policing and to explain how he’ll fight Republicans and police unions to make it law.
“This cannot just be a conversation of coming together and working together and healing,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights group founded in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. “There’s nothing more condescending than to tell black people just vote and things will change.”
Robinson recalled that Obama, the first black president, couldn’t change the system as much as African Americans had hoped. He’d want to see Biden detail how he’d actually enact police reforms, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans and police unions.
Biden promised on Monday to establish a national police oversight board in his first 100 days as president.
Biden urged Congress on Tuesday to begin passing new laws on policing as a “down payment.” He said they should pass New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’s bill outlawing police use of chokeholds, which he first proposed in 2015, as well as measures “to stop transferring weapons of war to police forces, to improve oversight and accountability, to create a model use of force standard.”
But Biden can’t do more than urge Congress for now, so instead he’s focused on contrasting with Trump. That is apparently working as he’s leading Trump in all national polls, but it may not be enough to encourage some black voters to turn out without more targeted outreach.
Addressing protesters who may be disaffected with electoral politics, Obama argued on Monday in an essay posted to Medium that voting is essential to making change. “Eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands,” he said.
But strategists say people still need a good reason.
“I’ve been in too many rooms of progressive organizations where the leaders have said of people of color, the leaders have said they all hate Trump and they’ll turn out because of that,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “If you’re poor and black or brown — or even white — you don’t necessarily connect voting to change in your life because you haven’t seen it and you may not see a reason to turn out.”
Woodbury said Biden should appear more frequently in black media — except avoid a gaffe like recently when he told Charlamagne tha God that any undecided black voters “ain’t black.”
“With younger black voters, especially younger black men, there is a certain level of cynicism toward Joe Biden, a level of mistrust and where he’s going to have to do more to demonstrate his commitment to their issues and their communities,” Woodbury said.
Some of that cynicism is about politics as a whole. “My ‘hood didn’t get better under Obama and it’s not getting worse under Trump,” he recalled a young black man saying during a recent Black Lives Matter focus group in Philadelphia. But some is specific to Biden and the votes he cast in the Senate.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1988, said Biden should go to Floyd’s funeral to offer his condolences in person. A Biden aide declined to comment on his travel plans but said he plans to continue accentuating contrasts between his approach to the moment and Trump’s.
“He can offer a reconciling message instead of a polarizing message,” Jackson said.