Biden and the Black vote

Joe Biden takes selfies with people attending his campaign event at the Hyatt Park Community Center on May 4, 2019, in Columbia, South Carolina. – Photo: Sean Rayford

by Ann Garrison

No readily available poll confirms that Barack Obama is currently the most popular politician in the US, but last week CNN’s Chris Cillizza declared that he is “by a long shot” and that he’d been a big winner in the debate because every candidate on stage invoked his alleged accomplishments at one point or another. It’s quite likely true, given that the former president has all the grace that Trump lacks and remains hugely popular in Black America. According to late BAR Editor Bruce Dixon, this is true even among Black Americans who lost their homes to the banks that Obama bailed out.

No presidential hopeful has been more desperately grasping at Obama’s coattails than his former vice president Joe Biden. This year, which turned out to be Bruce Dixon’s last, he wrote several essays intended to dispel Black voters’ trust in Biden simply because he was Obama’s vice president.

They included “Black Voters Are Biden’s Polling Balloon. We Need to Bust It,” published in May 2019, after Biden emerged at the top of the polls. “The obvious conclusion,” he wrote, “supported by the fact that Biden’s first two campaign videos are race themed, and the second one prominently includes Barack Obama, is that Biden’s popularity among Black voters is a hangover from the blind and unconditional support those same voters gave to the Obama administration.”

Although he had no praise for Obama, Bruce wrote that Biden had his own record to account for:

“Biden was Obama’s vice president. But Biden is not Obama. Even if Obama openly endorses him at some point, Biden has his own record, and it’s that of a consistent corporate stooge, particularly of the real estate and banking industries, and as one of the architects of the mass incarceration state.

No presidential hopeful has been more desperately grasping at Obama’s coattails than his former vice president Joe Biden. In this 2017 photo, Obama looks confident, Biden obsequious. – Charles Dharapak, AP

“Joe Biden didn’t just cast a vote for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, also known as the Clinton Crime Bill. Joe Biden wrote the bill, including but not limited to provisions that created no less than 60 new federal death penalty offenses a ban on Pell grants for prisoners, from which states took their cues and enacted similar bans on higher education for prisoners.

  • $9 billion in new funding for prisons
  • sex offender registries to ensure lifelong stigmatization of the convicted
  • three strikes provisions
  • new funding for ‘boot camps’ and juvenile prisons
  • funding for 100,000 new police officers

“Biden’s bill resulted in a spike in mass incarceration, which of course affected African American and Latinx communities more profoundly than any others. The damage to families and lives of course continues today.”

When the Sept. 12 debate turned to racial injustice, Biden incoherently tried to distance himself from the draconian carceral state, without acknowledging his central role in creating it.

“We are in a situation now where there are so many people in jail who shouldn’t be in jail. The whole means by which this should change is that the whole model has to change. We should be talking about rehabilitation. Nobody should be in jail for nonviolent crime. When we were in The White House, we released 36,000 people from the federal prison system.

“Nobody should be in jail for a drug problem. They should be going directly to a rehabilitation. We can build more rehabilitation centers, not prisons. I’m the guy who put in the drug courts to divert people from the criminal justice system.

“So we have to change the whole way we look at this. When we put people in prison, we have to equip them that when they get out. Nobody who got in prison for marijuana, for example, immediately upon being released, they shouldn’t be in there in the first place. That should be a misdemeanor. They should be out and their record should be expunged. Every single right should be returned. When you finish your term in prison you should be able to not only vote but to have access to Pell Grants, have access to, be able to get housing and access to be able to move along the way. I’ve laid out a detailed plan along those lines. The fact is we’ve learned so much more.”

That’s quite a sack of promises insofar as it even makes any sense. The statement that “you should, immediately upon being released … be able to get housing and access to be able to move along the way” is particularly unlikely, given that there are already over half a million homeless people on our streets, and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate proposing a serious solution.

It’s also noteworthy that Biden is now crusading for prisoners’ access to Pell Grants without acknowledging that it was his own 1994 crime bill that took them away.

Biden was equally clumsy, incoherent and racist on racism, reparations and the legacy of slavery. His record-player moment was the most ridiculed – but in the same moment he said that Black parents don’t know how to take care of their children:

“Social workers help parents deal with how to raise their children. It’s not like they don’t want to help; they don’t know what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television – excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the – make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.”

“Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. greeted congregants before the start of a church service in West Columbia, S.C.” That’s the NY Times caption to the story it illustrates, “Joe Biden Has Support From Older Black Voters. Is It Enough?” – Photo: Erin Schaff, The New York Times

The polls

On Sept. 2, Politico reported that Biden’s poll numbers in Black America, at 41 percent, still exceeded those of any other Democratic candidate. Bernie Sanders was a distant second at 20 percent. Older Black voters preferred Biden, while millennials preferred Sanders. Unlike Obama in 2008 and 2012, neither of the Black candidates, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, was striking a chord.

These are critical numbers because Black voters are the Democrats’ most loyal constituency. As the PBS News Hour reported on Sept. 5, “Black voters will define what ‘electable’ means for 2020 Democrats”:

“For all the strategic calculations, sophisticated voter targeting and relentless talk about electability in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential nomination will be determined by a decidedly different group: black voters.

“African Americans will watch as mostly white voters in the first two contests express preferences and winnow the field – then they will almost certainly anoint the winner.

“So far, that helps explain the front-running status of former Vice President Joe Biden. He has name recognition, a relationship with America’s first black president and a decades long Democratic resume. Black voters have long been at the foundation of his support – his home state of Delaware, where he served as a U.S. senator for nearly four decades, is 38 percent black – and until another presidential candidate proves that he or she can beat him, he is likely to maintain that support.”

Indeed, anyone-but-Trump desperation seems at least as widespread in the Black community as among white liberals, understandably given Trump’s overt racism, which gets in the whole world’s face every day, unlike Biden’s congressional record or BAR’s painstaking analyses of how bad he’s been for Black people. So, if garbage polls and the Democratic press can convince Black voters that Biden’s best able to defeat Trump, he probably will get their votes in the primaries.

Biden’s superior electability is less and less defensible, however, because his dementia, early or late stage or somewhere between, becomes more evident every time he opens his mouth. And despite Trump’s world-class horribleness, he’s not showing signs of dementia yet. Trump would make mincemeat of Biden in one-on-one debates, so if Democratic elites engineer his nomination, I can only conclude that they’ll be happy enough to see four more years of Trump. And they’ll certainly be happier than they would with Trump’s most fearsome challenger, Bernie Sanders.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann@anngarrison.com.