What Biden Owes Black Voters

Black voters helped save the president-elect’s primary campaign and put him over the top in the general election. Now they want action.

President-elect Joe Biden greets congregants after a church service in West Columbia, S.C., May 4, 2019
ERIN SCHAFF / The New York Times ​/ Redux

On February 29, hundreds of Joe Biden supporters stood densely packed in the volleyball center at the University of South Carolina, and the room went silent as Brian Williams’s voice blared through the loudspeakers. Polls had just closed in South Carolina, and MSNBC was ready to make a projection: Biden had won the state’s Democratic primary.

When Biden appeared onstage to speak, he knew what the victory meant: South Carolinians had saved his candidacy. “We’re back!” Biden yelled. “The state that launched Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the presidency has now launched our campaign on the path to defeating Donald Trump.” He was joined by his wife, Jill, but he also stood next to the powerful South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement had buoyed him in the state, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. “To all of you here in South Carolina—and especially to Jim Clyburn, my friend—you lifted me and this campaign on your shoulders,” Biden said. “I will never forget what you have done for us.” In a state where 56 percent of primary voters were Black, 61 percent of Black voters supported Biden. Three days later, on Super Tuesday, Biden won 10 states—with overwhelming support from Black voters. The Democratic nomination was his for the taking.

On November 7, as Biden basked in the results of a projected general-election victory and raved about the coalition his campaign had cobbled together, he again pointed to the voters who had propped him up. “Especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb,” he said, before turning directly to the camera and pounding his fist into the lectern for emphasis, “the African American community stood up again for me.”

Americans patiently (and impatiently) waited for days as election officials counted ballots in Wisconsin and Michigan, and they continue to wait as officials count ballots in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Hillary Clinton lost all of those states in 2016, some of them by fewer than 11,000 votes. Democrats were aware, going into this election, that they would need at least some combination of them to be competitive this year. “All these battlegrounds went marginally to Donald Trump [four years ago], and we knew that defeating an incumbent president, even one as disastrous as Donald Trump, was going to be very hard,” Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told me. The group began beefing up organizing efforts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania shortly after Trump’s election. A win for Democrats in 2020 would be marginal, “so every vote is going to matter, and Black voters—in Milwaukee, in Atlanta, in Philly, in Detroit—are the voters that are going to decide it,” Mitchell said.

As mail-in ballots were counted in heavily Black areas, and many of the battleground states began to flip to Biden, Mitchell’s thought proved prescient. For Clyburn, the reason for Black turnout was simple: “The Black vote this year responded to Trump as much as anything else,” he told me. “This guy shows nothing but disdain for Black people.”

On one level, the portrait is simple. Biden won more votes in areas with high Black populations than Clinton did in 2016. Although votes are still being counted in Pennsylvania and Georgia, Biden holds 93 percent of the vote in Philadelphia wards that are more than 75 percent Black, and he has earned roughly a quarter of a million more votes than Clinton did in the Atlanta metro area, according to the Associated Press. But this narrative is complicated by the fact that cities such as Detroit are rapidly gentrifying and shedding residents (nearly 5,000 in Detroit in the past two years alone). Biden ultimately won 1,000 fewer votes in Detroit than Clinton did in 2016, but his significant gains in nearby towns and counties, such as Oakland County, which has trended blue in recent years, may partially explain why Biden won fewer Black votes in Detroit proper.

The activation of Black voters is also the result of years of work by activists. There has historically been a gap between the rhetoric around the importance of registering Black voters and the investment in moving Black voters to action, Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, told me. The New Georgia Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to registering nonwhite voters, was founded by Stacey Abrams in 2014 and has registered an estimated 500,000 voters since its inception. Particularly in places such as Georgia, Ufot said, party leaders have followed the conventional wisdom about who shows up to vote, and spent money on elections based on that. Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign showed the flaw in that logic; her campaign betrayed the fact that investment in turning out Black voters could later potentially flip a state in the Deep South. “Both the Confederacy and the civil-rights movement lay claim to Georgia’s past. The question now is, who will write this story about Georgia’s future, and will write a story about the South’s future?” Ufot said.

People celebrating
Zach D. Roberts / NurPhoto / Getty

The Biden-campaign leaders actively sought to court Black voters throughout the race. They dispatched Magic Johnson to Detroit, Barack Obama to Philadelphia, and Spike Lee to Atlanta to speak explicitly to Black men. They listened to people such as Abrams on what the effects of reaching out to Black voters and registering new voters would be. And they highlighted aspects of their blueprint for America—such as funding for historically Black colleges and universities and boosting retirement savings—that would specifically affect Black Americans.

Now that victory has been claimed, however, the president-elect will be expected to turn to action. Biden has typically leaned on moderate policies that have been piecemeal solutions to the problems Black Americans have faced—or policies, such as the 1994 crime bill, that have made life worse for Black citizens. On the campaign trail, he apologized for that bill and made significant leftward policy shifts. But now it’s important that Biden follows through on most of the promises he made during the campaign, Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, told me. Black voters I’ve spoken with throughout the year have consistently expressed the feeling that politicians care about them only when they want their vote, then forget about them after Election Day. Surprisingly, in a July survey of Black voters in battleground states from American University, more than 60 percent of Black voters said they believed that elected leaders looked out for their interests. “He wasn’t shy about things that he said during the campaign, but now it’s about coming through,” Barnes said.

Moving ahead with his legislative agenda may come down to what happens in the Senate. Two runoff elections in Georgia will decide whether Democrats control the upper chamber. When I spoke with Ufot in the weeks leading up to the November 3 election, those were the races on her mind. “The previous [Jon] Ossoff race was the most expensive congressional race in the history of American politics, and the stakes did not feel anywhere near as high as they do right now—particularly for Black voters where one out of every 1,000 Black people have died from COVID,” she said. “Our work really begins when the dust settles and we see who’s going to be in January’s runoff.”

Clyburn was certain when I asked him whether Biden would continue to listen to Black people now that they’ve helped deliver him a win. “Absolutely,” he said. “And not because we want him to do it, but because he wants to do it.”

Winding his thanks to Black Americans to a close on Saturday, Biden paused. “You always have my back,” he said, “and I’ll have yours.” They will hold him to that.