When President-elect Joe Biden thanked Black voters in his victory speech Saturday night for rescuing his campaign when it was at its lowest point and declared “you’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” Kourtney Neloms did not cheer like the hundreds in attendance.
Instead, listening to Biden speak in Wilmington, Delaware, from her hometown, Detroit, she felt somewhat skeptical.
“OK, let’s see if he’s really being honest about this,” Neloms, 42, who is Black, recalled thinking. “My prayer is that it’s not just lip service.”
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While Black voters across the country celebrated the election of Biden and his vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, many said in recent days that the administration would have to prove its sincerity when it came to addressing the country’s vast inequalities and systemic barriers.
“I am hopeful and willing to give Biden a chance but am not completely sold,” said Geary Woolfolk, 53, who is Black and lives in suburban Atlanta.
In this year’s election, Biden attracted about 87% of the Black vote. At the same time, Trump, despite being widely viewed as inflaming racial hatred, gained more Black voters than in 2016, especially among Black men, according to exit polls.
In two dozen interviews, some African American voters echoed a long-standing political concern that they were underappreciated, particularly within the Democratic Party they have staunchly supported for decades. While Democrats always face high expectations to deliver for Black communities, the pressure on Biden, a compromise-first moderate, may be even greater because of the recent summer of protests over police brutality and systemic racism, the racial makeup of his electoral coalition and his own past.
In this year’s presidential bid, Biden’s political identity was shaped largely by the fact that he served as the vice president to Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president. He leveraged that experience to garner Black support, and it was Black voters in South Carolina who rescued his campaign during the Democratic primary.
He also addressed an issue that might have affected Black support, acknowledging that parts of his signature legislation as a longtime Delaware senator, the 1994 crime bill, were a mistake. Much of his campaign pitch, too, centered on addressing racial disparities, with the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately harming Black and Latino communities, and incidents of police violence leading to one of the largest protest movements in the nation’s history.
Biden and Harris — the first Black woman on a successful presidential ticket — accumulated huge margins over Trump in Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta, cities with large or majority Black populations that gave the president-elect a significant boost in tightly contested swing states.
Biden’s dramatic vow during his victory speech to return the favor for Black voters who so ardently supported him was an unusually explicit commitment to African Americans from an incoming president.
“It does create a situation where there is more pressure to provide for the Black community,” said Isaiah Thomas, a city councilman in Philadelphia who is Black. “I don’t think that we can re-create this moment right here. So we have to get as much as we can for poor people and people of color.”
During the campaign, Biden released an extensive policy agenda that outlined his plan for Black America. It included proposals to invest in Black businesses and entrepreneurs, create opportunities for homeownership, narrow racial disparities in education and address a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests, convicts and imprisons members of Black communities.
As he started his transition this week, Biden released a plan that included a section on racial equity. Activists with the Movement for Black Lives coalition said Tuesday that they sent a letter to Biden asking to have a role in the transition but that they have not heard back.
Not long after Biden’s speech Saturday, Woolfolk, a centrist who described his vote not necessarily in favor of the new president but instead in opposition to Trump, wrote an open letter to Biden. He said the Democratic Party had not earned his vote — or his loyalty. “Politicians,” he wrote on Facebook, “my vote is open for bid — what will you do for me and my kind now that the election is over?”
The father of three grown sons, Woolfolk said he wanted police accountability without defunding departments and better preparation for Black students headed to college or trade school.
Jean Brooks Murphy counted herself among the more than 60% of Black voters in South Carolina who rescued Biden’s withering primary campaign.
“Biden definitely owes us an administration that works on equality,” said Brooks Murphy, 74, a retired retail buyer living in Charleston. She said access to health care is an important priority for her because she has many friends “who are afraid to go to the doctor or will not go because they can’t afford the treatment or the medicine.”
Part of the challenge for Biden will be to coalesce the broad and differing views that Black Americans hold on policy goals, ideas and strategies. Some see a drastic overhaul of systems — from policing to housing — as the path to equality, while others favor more moderate measures that can garner support across the political spectrum.
While young Black progressive activists champion slogans like “defund the police,” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, one of the most powerful Black members of Congress, criticized the use of such phrases. He argued that they threatened to undermine support for racial justice movements and hurt Democrats in elections.
Banika Jones, 41, who works in food service for the Detroit Public Schools, said she wanted to see reparations for Black people, a public option for health insurance, a living wage for workers and the elimination of student loan debt.
“I want to see some actual, real socialist reform,” she said, emphasizing the political ideology that Republicans have used to demonize Democrats. “I said a dirty word, and I meant it. I want us to move toward Denmark.”
Although she voted for Biden, Jones said she was not excited about him. Instead, she saw him as a continuation of past Democrats, who seem more inclined to try to placate voters in the middle, rather than push for real change for African Americans and other marginalized groups.
“The Democrats always say that they’re going to do something,” she said. “They’re going to make health care better. They’re going to help us with education. They’re going to do something about poverty. But they have spines that are made out of ramen or something. They are completely unwilling to stand up and fight back.”
Jaymes Savage is far from being disillusioned. A 19-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University-Camden, he voted for the first time this year and is excited about what a Biden-Harris administration could mean for a Black man from Philadelphia like himself. He is especially hopeful that Harris — whose father immigrated from Jamaica and mother immigrated from India — would be able to relate to the continued struggles in his community.
“I’m kind of cautious,” he said, “but then again, I’m still hopeful because he specifically addressed us, and he said that we were a key part of him winning the election. I feel as though that he really is going to try to help us more now.”
It was not enough for Black voters to wait on Biden to help their communities, some said. They needed to force the issue.
Jasmine M. Johnson, who spent a year helping to mobilize voters in Milwaukee, where turnout was similar to 2016, said she was ecstatic about Biden’s victory — and hopes his Cabinet selections include Black women, “who once again delivered.” After that, she said, the president’s Black agenda should prioritize shrinking the wealth gap.
“This election cycle has been a refresher for some and a crash course for others in civics,” Johnson, 39, said. “We have to collectively understand the impact of elections in our lives and collectively come up with our ask of this new administration — and then hold them accountable.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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