American-flag bunting frames Headliners Barbershop in Detroit. Out front, four barber’s chairs, spaced six feet apart, form a straight line. In one of them, Garlin Gilchrist, the lieutenant governor of Michigan, sits up, then leans on the right armrest, turning to Senator Kamala Harris, who occupies the seat next to him. “All of us know somebody who has been affected or who has died,” he tells the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. “That’s happened to me 23 times since this pandemic hit. Twenty-three goodbyes.” Harris nods along.
Through his black mask, Gilchrist tells the smattering of Black men from the area who have joined the “Shop Talk” event, the Biden campaign’s series of conversations focused on Black voters, that all of this was preventable. Since the pandemic began, more than 7,000 Michiganders have lost their lives to the coronavirus. “Not a single one of them had to die. Their death was a policy failure—a policy failure that started with a failure in the White House,” he says.
Although Black women have often been called “the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Black men have not been reliably Democratic in such large numbers. During the 2016 election, 98 percent of Black women who voted cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton, whereas 81 percent of Black men did. Fourteen percent of Black men voted for Donald Trump. The Biden campaign knew, going into the race, that it would need to maintain that support Clinton received. But merely matching Clinton’s numbers would not be enough—it needed to build upon them. The campaign recognized that its success or failure in energizing Black men could dictate whether America had four more years of the Trump administration. As millions of voters have begun mailing in their ballots and voting in person, the Biden campaign is racing to make its final pitches to the electorate, including Black men. It has held virtual conversations with prominent Black mayors, dispatched Magic Johnson to Detroit, and blanketed television and radio with ads designed to reach Black men and avoid a repeat of 2016.
Four years ago, at a rally an hour and a half northwest of Detroit, Donald Trump asked what came to be an infamous question. “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth are unemployed,” he said, referring to Black voters. “What the hell do you have to lose?” He boasted to the audience in Dimondale, a city that is 93 percent white, that after four years, he would win 95 percent of the Black vote in the country. But four years later, one of every 1,000 Black Americans has died during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected them, and the Black unemployment rate is more than 50 percent higher than it was at the end of the Obama administration. Still, the Biden campaign is not resting on that fact alone to get Black men to turn out in three weeks.
A lot of Black men “were Trump-curious in 2016, and they thought that he was some great businessman and prosperity would rain down from his administration,” Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of the Biden-campaign co-chairs, told me recently. But although Black voters helped catapult the Biden campaign in the Democratic primary, several polls among Black men have remained consistent with the last election. In one September survey of likely voters, Black women, again, overwhelmingly support the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, but roughly 17 percent of Black men say they plan to support the president. Still, Richmond told me, the campaign believes it can outperform those expectations by “talking straight to Black men about the things they’re concerned about.”
The campaign’s strategy is similar to the one it employed during the Democratic primary, Trey Baker, the Biden campaign’s national director for African American engagement, told me. “The primary is like a series of local elections,” he said. “It’s like you’re running for mayor in every town across the country.” The relationships with local activists, barbers, pastors, and other leaders are where those elections are won. Biden’s team has carried the relationships it built during such retail campaigning in the primary to its largely virtual homestretch. The boost Biden received from Black voters in South Carolina rescued his primary campaign, and their support across the rest of the South sustained it. The campaign hopes they will buoy him in November, as well. But the Biden campaign struggled with young Black voters during the primary. (In one February Morning Consult poll, 46 percent of Black voters under the age of 45 said they would have preferred Senator Bernie Sanders.)
In late September, Vince Evans, who directed Biden’s southern political strategy during the primary campaign and now works as Harris’s political director, went home to Florida and saw firsthand the lack of enthusiasm some young Black men had for the former vice president. “He wasn’t sure he was going to vote, but I eventually got him there,” Evans told me of one of his cousins. “But he talked about the two things that were top of mind for him—and the other young men in my family—and it was: What can we do to once and for all deal with systemic racism in this country? And job security.” According to a July survey conducted by American University in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, Black Americans under the age of 30 were more likely to fear police brutality, and less likely to trust that Democrats would do what is in the best interest of the Black community. These are the voters the Trump campaign, a Channel 4 News investigation in the United Kingdom revealed, tried to deter from voting in 2016—and the ones it hopes will stay home in this cycle as well.
The margins matter when it comes to Black support. Some voters might be encouraged to vote for Biden because he’s not Trump. As the media obsessed over how Black voters would swing in 2004, one voter told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m not excited about Kerry, but he’s the other guy; he’s the alternative to Bush.” (Kerry won 88 percent of Black votes that year.) Four years later, a record 95 percent of Black voters supported Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton was not able to hold on to the coalition Obama built. Even so, she matched Kerry’s numbers, earning 88 percent of the Black vote. As Theodore R. Johnson wrote in The New York Times Magazine last month, “an enduring unity at the ballot box is not confirmation that Black voters hold the same views on every contested issue, but rather that they hold the same view on the one most consequential issue: racial equality.” But will enough Black voters show up to carry Biden?
Though white college-educated women might be the bloc most likely to swing this election, the Biden campaign doesn’t want to take any chances. Back outside of Headliners, Gilchrist made clear Michigan’s responsibility in electing Trump. “This is the state Trump won by the slimmest margin of any state: 10,704 votes. A number that is seared into my mind for the rest of eternity,” he said. “But I challenge you that there are 11,000 Black men in Michigan that can turn that around.”
On September 29, seven days after Gilchrist and Harris spoke at the barbershop, Biden and Trump met on stage in Cleveland for the first Democratic debate. Trump bulldozed the conversation. He talked over the moderator, Chris Wallace. He interrupted Biden. But the steady hum of crosstalk subsided for a moment as Wallace briefly regained control. “Why should voters trust you rather than your opponent to deal with the race issues facing this country?” he asked both candidates. Biden alluded to America’s unfulfilled promises—the equality guaranteed by the Constitution that has not been made available to all Americans. Trump knocked Biden for his work on the 1994 Crime Bill, which has dogged his candidacy, before pivoting to a muddy response about his support among law enforcement.
But Richmond—and the Biden campaign—want to expand the conversation beyond that question. “There are a number of things that highlight the urgency of this election. One is the racial awakening. But if we’re talking about Black males, that’s nothing new,” Richmond told me. Systemic racism is nothing new when you’ve lived it. “We didn’t need eight minutes and 46 seconds of a police officer on George Floyd’s neck to know what was happening.” The 41 percent of Black businesses that have closed as a result of the pandemic, the 60 percent of Black households facing “serious financial problems,” and the abysmal Black unemployment rate after four years of the Trump administration offer a clear divide between Biden and the president, Richmond argued. “We all know who Donald Trump is. The real question is who we want to be.”