“Joe Biden is one of the few White people that I have had a very close relationship with who understands” the lived experiences of Black people, he said in an interview several weeks before the inauguration.
Biden’s debt to Black voters, and his relationships with Black leaders and political movements like Black Lives Matter, stand to be a major theme in his presidency as he enters the White House less than a year after the George Floyd protests.
Clyburn is hopeful. Black voters can pick up on whether White politicians are comfortable around them, and Biden passes that test, according to Clyburn. And that ease among Black voters convinced the congressman that Biden could win in a showdown with President Trump.
But Biden’s attempts at this kind of ease haven’t always gone well. There was the time he “bragged” about diversity in Delaware by saying you can’t go into a “7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” One of his worst gaffes happened in May, during the primaries, on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio program popular with Black audiences. As the interview wrapped, radio personality Charlemagne tha God asked Biden to make another appearance on the show so he could press him further on his record.
“You got more questions, but I’ll tell you,” Biden said, “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Biden was criticized from the left and right for the comments. “I was much too cavalier,” the candidate said later. “I know that the comments have come off like I was taking the African American vote for granted.”
“Sometimes you can get too comfortable,” Clyburn said and chuckled. (Charlemagne, born Lenard Larry McKelvey, grew up in the same South Carolina town as the congressman’s late wife, Emily. “Charlemagne and I laughed about that,” he said of Biden’s cringey remark.)
Some Black voters who haven’t known Biden for decades are less eager to give him the benefit of the doubt. Many young Black voters backed the more-progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over Biden in the primary. Johnetta Elzie, an organizer involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, voted for Biden in the general, but mostly out of concern for what four more years of Trump would mean for racial justice. Elzie is concerned about getting the pandemic under control and plans to judge the Biden administration on its ability to contain it. When it comes to criminal-justice reform under Biden, she’s not optimistic.
Elzie, who grew up in the St. Louis area, remembers the excitement that she felt when then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made his run for the White House in 2008. She became an activist in August 2014 after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Seven years of protesting and dealing with elected officials have left her a bit weary and leery of politicians, Republican and Democrat. “I got tear-gassed 14 times under Obama on American soil by police that my taxes paid for,” she said.
Elzie now works with Campaign Zero, a nonprofit calling for police reform. Her expectations for cooperation from Biden on that front aren’t high, even when it comes to the prospect of a Biden administration pursuing consent decrees with local police departments to reform their practices — something the incoming administration has said it plans to do. (Under President Obama, the Justice Department investigated a number of city police departments, including Ferguson’s, entering into consent decrees in the hope of reducing misconduct and racial bias, but that work was all but abandoned by the Trump administration.)
Biden, who was elected during the “law and order” Nixon era and helped write “tough on crime” legislation in the mid-1990s, will have to be responsive to Black voters on issues like police brutality and criminal justice. During a December conference call with civil rights leaders, Biden blamed the “defund the police” slogan, popular among activists and some left-wing Democrats in Congress, for the party’s 2020 losses in the House. “I also don’t think we should get too far ahead of ourselves on dealing with police reform, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police,’ ” Biden told civil rights leaders. He added, “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country — saying that we’re talking about defunding the police.”
Although she believes funds should be reallocated away from policing and toward education, Elzie said she understands why the “defund” phrase can be off-putting, particularly to older Black voters who sometimes complain about their communities being underpoliced. Clyburn, who got his start as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, has rebuked Black Lives Matter activists for using the slogan. It’s something he said he talked about with fellow activist-turned-congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.). Before Lewis died last year, Clyburn expressed concerns about the direction of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We sat in the back of the House one day, and he said, ‘Jim, they’re gonna do the same thing to Black Lives Matter — this ‘defund the police’ — that those guys did to us back in the 1960s with ‘burn, baby, burn,’ ” Clyburn said, referring to a slogan shouted by participants in the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles.
When he endorsed the president-elect last year, Clyburn felt that Biden could defeat Trump. Now, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, some have said Black voters saved the country.
This ignores the fact that Black voters are rational political actors voting in their best interests just like everyone else. They weren’t doing Democrats or Biden any favors. They want to see the pandemic disproportionately ravaging their communities brought under control. They want safe neighborhoods and the respect of law enforcement. They want access to good jobs and schools.
And they want Biden to deliver.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Rep. Jim Clyburn in one instance as a senator. The story has been updated.