Black Voters and Biden’s Victory: The Power of Grassroots Organizing
During the 2020 general election, Black Americans played a crucial role in President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’ victory, which brings an end to President Donald Trump’s administration and marks a pivotal moment in modern American history.
Black voters overwhelmingly supported Biden and turned out in high numbers, helping deliver battleground states and key cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, to name a few.
According to the Associated Press, Black voters made up 11% of the national electorate, and 9 in 10 supported Biden. These statistics were similar in 2016, but grassroots organizers’ efforts and a stronger push from activists for greater Black voter turnout helped bring Biden his victory.
Low voter turnout in 2016 led Black people to feel they were being blamed for Trump’s victory. In doing that, many political strategists were misdirecting their dissent and blaming the victims of voter suppression rather than voter suppression itself. Voter suppression has a notoriously disproportionate impact on people of color, specifically on Black communities.
In 2020, however, turnout was high despite similar tactics of voter suppression, which were amplified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Black Voters Matter Fund sent buses across the nation and targeted 15 states, sending nearly 2 million text messages and reaching more than 500,000 voters.
Thanks to the efforts of Black organizers and leaders to flip Georgia, including former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Biden has become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Republican stronghold in nearly three decades.
"The fact that we have matched and topped white voter participation and done that while going through voter suppression in new and old forms every year,” organizer LaTosha Brown said to NBC News, “we are extraordinary."
During his victory speech Nov. 7, Biden acknowledged that the effect of Black Americans’ organizing and voter turnout on the election result could not be overlooked: “The African American community stood up again for me. You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” Some remain skeptical and wonder if Biden’s acknowledgement of Black voters’ role in his victory is just lip service that will not translate into sincere action.
Given the Black community’s pivotal role in delivering Joe Biden the presidency, many believe the Biden administration owes it to the Black community to tackle systemic racism and address racial disparities in every aspect of the policies it puts forth in the coming years. This should be a priority not only because Black people put in the work to win Joe Biden the presidency, but because it is the right thing to do.
In order to effectively implement policies that advance civil rights and reduce racial inequities, Biden must first confront his problematic record on such political issues and use the support from Black voters to focus on antiracist policy. Especially within the progressive wing of the Democratic party, many were critical of his role in passing federal criminal justice legislation in the 1990s, including the 1994 crime bill, which resulted in higher incarceration rates and over-policing of Black communities.
To effectively address the needs of the Black voters who delivered him the presidency, he must manage his own disturbing record on civil rights legislation and demonstrate his willingness to steer policy as president in a different direction.
His choice of Kamala Harris as the vice presidential pick was significant to many Black voters, and Black women in particular, given the historic nature of her election as the first woman, Black and South Asian person to hold the position of Vice President. The Biden administration needs to build on that momentum by translating it into policy.
One key policy area that should be addressed by the Biden administration is the deep-rooted racial inequality in economic opportunities. The Black poverty rate is currently at 18.8%, relative to only 7.3% for whites, despite it being the lowest it has ever been. Civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II said he expects Black poverty to be an immediate priority for a Biden administration.
In addition, Black-owned businesses have been disproportionately harmed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing a 41% drop in business activity, compared to a 22% overall decline from February to April 2020. Biden’s Build Back Better Plan includes a section on advancing racial equity in economic opportunity, and Black voters will certainly hold him to it.
Another critical policy area involves addressing racial disparities in our healthcare system, an issue further exacerbated by the pandemic. Black people are more than two times as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people. Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, one of the many alarming consequences of the institutionalized and systemic racism in the American healthcare system.
Biden says he wants to preserve and build on the Affordable Care Act by giving people a new public option for health insurance and expanding coverage for low-income individuals. In implementing this plan, his administration must also focus on incorporating policies that reduce racial disparities in both access to health care and adverse health outcomes such as maternal mortality and the Black COVID-19 death rate.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Biden administration should focus on law enforcement and police violence, including criminal justice reform. Especially in the wake of renewed support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Biden administration will look to take new steps to reform law enforcement institutions that disproportionately harm Black communities.
For example, some political commentators argue the administration should support the BREATHE Act, which would “eliminate the federal government's ability to give multimillion dollar grants for the militarization of police forces” and calls for the implementation of a plan to close all federal immigration detention centers.
The BREATHE Act would also revoke a longstanding policy that people with a felony conviction are not allowed to vote. This is similar to California’s Proposition 17, which passed in the state’s 2020 election and grants Californian felons on parole the right to vote in elections, which is a step in the right direction.
Just like in any presidential campaign, citizens can expect many unfulfilled promises. However, the Biden administration must demonstrate its commitment to addressing issues of importance to the Black voters who delivered its victory.
Black voters’ role in Biden’s success points to the significance of voting rights in the long struggle for civil rights and racial equity. It increases the urgency for the Biden administration to address these issues, which means tackling systemic racism in every aspect of public policy, including economic policy, health care, criminal justice, education, and any other policy areas.
While these issues will certainly not completely dissolve over the next four years, presidential leadership plays a crucial role in executing policy in a way that moves the nation in the direction of progress.
According to leading antiracism scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who was named the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University in August, racist policies are substantiated by racist ideas and thus lead to and reinforce racial inequities. He argues that antiracist policies, which are substantiated by antiracist ideas, are necessary to lead to racial equality. There is no in-between, and the Biden administration must choose the latter.