And yet we all know there is often an effort to police blackness … to determine who is really black, fully black, authentically black, conveniently black, naturally black, unapologetically black, conservatively black, asymmetrically black or blackity black. It’s a minefield of emotion, oppression, aspiration, judgment, backlash, pain, history and pride. Really complicated stuff.
And so why would Joe Biden decide to step into this space like a deputized member of the soul patrol?
Appearing on the “The Breakfast Club,” a radio show popular with black millennials, Biden told host Charlamagne tha God that, “if you have trouble figuring out if you are voting for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
What followed is the political equivalent of a fast-moving fire. Biden apologized Friday afternoon. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden said in a call with the U.S. Black Chambers, a business group. Earlier, Biden’s campaign adviser said he was speaking in jest and indeed the camera captures a slight chuckle. But it might take more than this to fully extinguish a flame that quickly got this hot.
Black voters who think the Democratic Party takes them for granted were offended and took to Twitter in droves to say so. Progressive voters who were already questioning Biden’s past support for busing and the crime bill and his treatment of Anita Hill have another reason to fault his nomination. Democrats of all stripes who worry about Biden’s propensity toward verbal gaffes will continue to wring their hands. And Republicans immediately rolled out their outrage machinery to stoke dissension within the Democratic base.
The hill just got steeper for Joe Biden, and I think that is actually a good thing.
Democrats do have a tendency to take black votes for granted. Democratic candidates who have earned the backing and trust of top black party leaders too often tend to coast on their adjacent-to-blackness bona fides. Biden’s role in the Obama administration does put an automatic luster on his candidacy, but that can cut both ways.
There is a belief that black voters went to the polls en masse to support Barack Obama simply because his two elections were historic. That reading dismisses the granular micro-targeting strategy that was used by the Obama campaign to create separate and sticky tendrils of get-out-the-vote messaging aimed at union households, college students, immigrants, churchgoers, high-net-worth individuals, small-business owners, dual-race families and the hip-hop generation. Taken together, they all make up “the black vote,” but as individual groups they sometimes had little in common beyond the boxes they checked on the census. That too is complicated stuff, and it was not activated to full effect in the 2016 Clinton campaign. Woe to Democrats if they make that mistake again.
Biden’s flippant attempt at humor sounds like it was meant to underscore what’s at stake in the upcoming election, and it is indeed hard to overstate the prospect of another four years of Donald Trump’s bungling and callous leadership. But the “Vote Blue No Matter Who” line of thinking can be dangerous and cavalier. Black votes have to be earned both on the whole and through individual and targeted efforts.
“You ain’t black” is now a hashtag and a coda for the mistakes politicians can make when they get too comfortable with black colloquialism. It was an unforced error and the gotcha nature of social media will continue to amplify and distort the gaffe. So, Biden was smart to quickly admit the error. The next step is to learn from it. Take the time during this extended stay-at-home period when we have more room for introspection to think not just about the statement but also the impulse behind it.
Biden’s path to victory with all voters and black voters in particular relies on him talking about his record — his entire record. That means leaning into the discomfort of acknowledging that some people bristle when they hear him talking about a showdown with a black dude named “Corn Pop” at a Wilmington, Del., pool in the 1970s … and that some people are justifiably offended when he waxes nostalgically about a collegial relationship with segregationist Southern senators … and that some people are disappointed when he goes on the offensive when asked about his past support of busing.
You don’t get to erase your history. But you do have a chance to craft the story you want to tell about that history. And if that proud story explains how a man made mistakes, learned from experience, created trust across difference and evolved overall into someone who is willing to work hard to earn every vote and lead the nation as a unifying force, then voters will respond.
In other words, focus on earning support from black voters, instead of mocking those who are still making up their minds.
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