At the end of the march there was Joe Biden.
“Will we be the generation that finally wipes out the stain of racism from our national character?” Biden asked Thursday night as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge President Trump. “I believe we’re up to it. I believe we’re ready.”
But what’s the plan? The symbols and slogans amounted to little more than the NBA painting Black Lives Matter on the court. Nice gesture. But the game goes on.
“This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme,” Biden said, riffing off a Seamus Heaney poem. It sounded elegant. The lack of details made the phrasing so clean.
In truth, the solutions Biden and his team have proposed for addressing systemic racism remain in draft form under the umbrella of the “Build Back Better” section of his campaign website. They are mostly loose thoughts and careful, idealistic aims rather than concrete policy proposals. These rough sketches are neither disruptive nor highly debatable, and perhaps that’s the point against a divisive opponent like Trump.
But for all of the Democrats’ efforts to portray Biden as a “decent” guy, he has ample work left to earn the trust of voters keenly concerned about social justice.
The motivation for Democrats’ warm embrace of Black Lives Matter can’t be simply that Black Votes Matter. The Democrats’ platform has been full of that sentiment for a long time. Biden still has to prove to many — Black and Latino voters, young folks, and those far to the left of him — that he can be trusted on these issues; that he is worth braving a pandemic and weaving through voter suppression tactics to cast a ballot for.
Perhaps Biden looks at it as “me or Trump.” But apathy is a dangerous opponent, too. The reality is that there’s a third candidate more helpful to Trump than Kanye West: cynicism.
Lack of enthusiasm is enough of a concern that former president Barack Obama felt the need, in addition to detailing a brotherhood with his former vice president, to give America a stern lecture about our responsibility in maintaining a democracy. Even as he pursues undecided swing voters, which his campaign did during the DNC by working several anti-Trump Republicans into the program, Biden has plenty to prove to a diverse base. This, of course, includes Black voters.
It’s hard to forget that Biden went on “The Breakfast Club” five months ago and arrogantly told the radio host, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” The former VP and his campaign later walked the comment back.
And Biden is just two weeks removed from apologizing for making an odd contrast of the African American and Latino communities during a journalism convention, which offended many Black people.
“We can build a new administration that reflects the full diversity of our nation. The full diversity of Latino communities,” he said. “And when I mean full diversity, unlike the African American community and many other communities, you’re from everywhere. From Europe, from the tip of South America, all the way to our border and Mexico and in the Caribbean. And different backgrounds, different ethnicities, but all Latinos, we’re gonna get a chance to do that if we win in November.”
Biden is known for his verbal slip-ups, but his ability over the years to be Extraordinarily Ordinary Joe — no better than anyone but connected to everyone — has earned him a lot of grace. In that sense, the “decent” label also means open-minded and somewhat adaptable, particularly for an old school 77-year-old political centrist. But decent people have been complicit in keeping Black lives from mattering. Will Biden and Harris acknowledge that?
It doesn’t have to mean putting Biden on trial for his role in the 1994 crime bill or excoriating Harris again for the portions of her time as a prosecutor that conflict with her evolved thinking about criminal justice reform.
The most powerful part of the 2020 racial reckoning has been the introspection. It’s the White Americans who have admitted to not understanding the complexity of racism and committing to be better. It’s the diversity of the protesters and their fearlessness even when facing arrest, tear gas or rubber bullets. It’s that people gathered together and took a stand while knowing the novel coronavirus lurked.
To effectively govern those people, to create the kind of change that the streets have shouted for, requires a reciprocal political reckoning, apart from comparisons to the current White House occupant. Will Biden more deeply examine how protecting and elevating Black lives fits into his pledge to restore the soul of America?
During the Democratic convention, it was notable to see a major political party bring so much attention to racism and sexism. It presented a vision of a more just America that was appreciated but also expected. Still, there is a difference between being heard and being seen. And for Team Biden to get to the latter, it’s going to take more than featuring George Floyd’s brother, listening to a Zoom panel talk about racial inequality and verbally condemning racism.
The Biden campaign is like an NBA team, with players wearing one of the league-approved social justice messages on their jerseys. Considering how things used to be, it’s a stunning shift in emphasis and important symbolism. But they are just slogans, promises, intentions. The wait continues for Biden to transcend the game.