The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three years after Floyd’s death, a reckoning for Biden’s agenda on race

Amid slow pace of police reform, many Black voters do not feel that Biden has improved their lives

President Biden greets Gianna Floyd, daughter of George Floyd, after signing an executive order in the White House on May 25, 2022, the second anniversary of Floyd's death. (Alex Brandon/AP)
9 min

Three years after the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests and led then-candidate Joe Biden to endorse a broad platform of racial justice initiatives, the president is under pressure to prove to Black voters that he enacted as much of his equity agenda as possible — and that he remains committed to delivering for his most loyal supporters in a second term.

While Biden continues to receive relatively high marks from Black voters, he has not yet convinced most that his policies have improved their lives, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 1,200 Black Americans.

About a third of Black Americans (34 percent) say Biden’s policies have helped Black people, while 14 percent say they have hurt and 49 percent think they have made no difference, according to the Post-Ipsos poll. As Biden prepares to campaign for reelection and seeks to rebuild the coalition that vaulted him to the presidency, he will need to convince more Black voters that his presidency has met both the expectations he set during his 2020 run and the cultural moment, Democratic strategists say.

“Black voters’ contribution to Democratic margins, especially in these battleground states, are critical to Democrats’ success,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster. “A red wave for Republicans doesn’t require a wave of Black voters voting Republican; it just requires a splintering of [our] coalition by 10,000 votes here or 20,000 votes there.”

Read Post-Ipsos poll results

Racial justice issues present a key vulnerability that could prompt Democratic “slippage” in the 2024 presidential race, Woodbury added.

Inside the White House, the anniversary of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has become an annual occasion for Biden to reassure Black voters that he is working on racial justice issues. The president has marked the date each year with fresh action or comments on police reform.

“George Floyd’s murder exposed for many what Black and Brown communities have long known and experienced -- that we must make a whole of society commitment to ensure that our nation lives up to its founding promise of fair and impartial justice for all under the law,” Biden said in a statement Thursday, calling on Congress to pursue “genuine solutions” on police accountability.

Biden also plans to mark the anniversary by vetoing a bill passed by Congress aimed at overturning a D.C. policing overhaul, according to White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of the veto. The policing legislation, which includes many of the same proposals Biden has sought to enact at the federal level, was passed in response to Floyd’s murder.

Congress has the authority to overturn statutes passed by the D.C. Council, and it did so with the policing bill last week. The bipartisan vote offered a stark reminder of how the politics of race and criminal justice have changed since Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, and Biden embraced the Black Lives Matter movement amid a surge in national support for overhauling law enforcement practices.

In 2021, Biden asked Congress to send him policing legislation by May 25, telling Floyd’s family that he wanted to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on the first anniversary of his murder.

After that bill failed in Congress, Biden marked the second anniversary last year by signing a series of executive actions aimed at implementing new accountability measures for federal law enforcement officers.

Today, Biden faces a complex political landscape as he tries to advance his racial justice agenda amid a rising backlash against diversity initiatives and urban crime. Most of the Republican candidates vying to unseat Biden, including former president Donald Trump, have campaigned on the idea that Biden’s ongoing focus on racial issues is itself a form of racism.

In remarks this month to graduating students at Howard University, the president said “sinister forces” are trying to turn back the clock on racial progress. He acknowledged that many young Black voters are “frustrated that there are so many elected officials who refuse to pass a law that will do something” about police brutality.

But he also used the opportunity to tout his accomplishments for the Black community, including record-low unemployment and equity initiatives on health, climate, education, student loans, criminal justice and representation in government. He declared white supremacy “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”

The Biden administration said Thursday it had made significant progress in implementing the sweeping executive orders Biden signed on May 25, 2022, instructing federal law enforcement agencies to implement a ban on chokeholds and carotid restraints for federal officers, begin requiring agents to wear body cameras, and limit the use of “no-knock warrants,” among other measures.

Because they are presidential orders and not laws, those changes affect only federal officers and agents, not the thousands of local and state police departments across the country. Floyd was killed after local Minneapolis police officers knelt on his back and neck for more than nine minutes, suffocating him.

White House officials have said they believe the president’s actions can be a model for changes at the local level by demonstrating that police accountability and public safety can be appropriately balanced.

But the effort has not been without challenges. For example, the federal police accountability database Biden announced a year ago has not been officially launched.

Detailed poll crosstabs

“At this point, we don’t have a firm deadline yet on when the database will be online,” said one White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the anniversary announcements.

Change has not come fast enough for Shauntey Singletary, a 34-year-old nurse practitioner from Rehoboth Beach, Del., who said that Biden has not done enough for the Black community.

“I haven’t really seen any change on any of the stuff that he was promoting when he was running for the presidency, or the things that he was saying that he was going to do for the Black community. I haven’t seen that occur,” Singletary said, noting that there have been several viral recordings of police violence against Black people in the years since Floyd was murdered. “Police brutality has not changed; it’s gotten worse.”

Asked what she would do in the case of a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024, Singletary sighed, likening the choice to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Pressed on the matter, she said, “I would definitely not vote for Trump.”

In a potentially positive sign for Biden, opposition to another Trump term is particularly strong among Black voters, the Post-Ipsos poll finds. More than half say they would be “angry” if Trump were to return to the White House and nearly 8 in 10 say they would not consider voting for Trump against Biden.

At the same time, excitement for another Biden term is muted, with 17 percent saying they would be “enthusiastic” if Biden were reelected and 48 percent saying they would be “satisfied but not enthusiastic.” Only 8 percent of Black Americans say they would be “angry” if Biden were reelected.

About two-thirds of Black Americans (66 percent) approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, down slightly from the 70 percent who said the same in 2022. For comparison, a recent Post-ABC News poll of Americans overall found that 36 percent approved of Biden’s job as president, while some other polls show him in the low 40s.

Charles, a 61-year-old government contractor from Gaithersburg, Md., said he “approved somewhat” of the president and that he thought Biden’s policies have helped Black people.

“Biden’s been able, from the White House, to resist the kinds of retrograde policies that are being pushed by the House,” he said in an interview, declining to give his last name for privacy reasons. “Culture can’t change very quickly, but putting a wall up against retrograde policies proposed by Republicans is what he has done.”

White House officials blamed Republicans for blocking much of Biden’s equity agenda, including on policing, an area in which bipartisan discussions broke down in late 2021 over legislation that would have banned chokeholds and created new police accountability measures on a national basis.

Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Floyd’s family, said that even though the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not passed, Biden should continue using the bully pulpit to call for action at the state and local level. With Republicans in control of the House, Democrats and civil rights activists have little hope that a federal policing bill could pass before the next election.

Biden’s decision to veto Congress’s rejection of D.C.’s policing overhaul allows him to use his presidential authority to influence policy at the municipal level, where Crump said much of the action on police reform is now taking place. The D.C. legislation restricts certain use-of-force tactics, prevents the hiring of officers with past misconduct, and expands public access to police disciplinary records and body-camera footage in excessive-force incidents, among other things.

The GOP-controlled House voted to reject the legislation last month, and the disapproval resolution passed the Senate last week by a vote of 56-43. Several Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Republican legislation, citing rising crime and other concerns.

Biden said that while he did not agree with everything in the D.C. legislation, he did not support Congress’s move to block “common-sense police reforms” at the local level.

Crump said Biden should continue to speak out against police brutality in local cases, if only to bolster his own political standing. “He can never use his bully pulpit enough,” he said. “Especially when he goes into the 2024 election, they’re going to need a big Black voter turnout. It would be good for them to demonstrate that he did all that he could do to help the Black community on such an important point issue to us.”

The Post-Ipsos poll was conducted through the Ipsos KnowledgePanel from April 28 through May 12 among a random national sample of 1,225 non-Hispanic Black adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.