The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden vowed to do more for Black Americans. Some say it’s already too late.

President Biden listens to a question from a reporter during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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As he enters his second year in office, President Biden said he would make a stronger push for voting rights: more travel, more vitriol, more “making the case” for what happens if voters continue to support Democrats.

But for many Black Americans whose energetic campaigning and votes helped propel Biden to the White House and secure Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the president’s impassioned vow this week came too late.

They are frustrated by his inaction on issues of equity and see a familiar carousel: a politician who promises to amplify Black voices and issues before Election Day, followed by maddening silence and inaction afterward.

“The agenda that he ran on, and got so many of us to go with him on, like police reform and criminal justice reform . . . and voting rights, they gave up on it,” said Fletcher Smith, a former South Carolina state legislator and one of a group of informal and mostly Black Biden advisers who call themselves “the Bidenites.”

Smith said Biden’s tone has been different the past couple of weeks, but he’s not convinced the results will be. “He’s not going to govern,” Smith predicted of the president. “He’s just going to go out in the nation and campaign and raise money for Democratic candidates in these congressional seats.”

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For Smith and many other Black supporters, Biden’s concession that he “had not been out in the community nearly enough” was an admission that he had failed to connect with — and deliver for — one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies.

The first anniversary of Biden’s presidency represents an inflection point, with some Black voters aware of their political capital but worried that it may have been squandered by trusting Biden to renew voting rights, legislation for which has stalled in the narrowly divided Senate, and other priorities.

At his news conference Wednesday, Biden conceded that the coronavirus pandemic and other priorities in Washington had prevented him from doing “the things that I’ve always been able to do pretty well: connect with people, let them take a measure of my sincerity, let them take a measure of who I am.”

But many advocates who protested systemic racism in 2020 and, later, mobilized voters during a global pandemic to help elect Democrats, say the problem wasn’t Biden’s words but his lack of action, according to Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a Movement for Black Lives spokeswoman.

“What we’re told is that the only reason we don’t understand what they did was because they haven’t worded it well,” she said. “It feels a little bit like an insult to our intelligence.”

Woodard Henderson added, “We don’t need you to give us fancy words; we need to actually see you execute policy on the legislative level. And we need Joe Biden, as the president of the United States, to lead his party to use the power that they’ve been bestowed with.”

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Over the past year, White House officials have stressed Biden’s commitment to equity issues by citing a flurry of executive actions, as well as the Justice Department’s work to fight voter suppression. They also note that voting rights is part of Vice President Harris’s portfolio, a sign of the issue’s importance.

Biden made a forceful speech in Georgia last week addressing voting rights — including withdrawing his long-held support of the filibuster, an arcane Senate rule that allows any member to keep a piece of business off the floor indefinitely. Biden said the rule had been abused to stop Black people from voting.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday that Biden has said several times “that he was deeply disappointed that voting rights legislation didn’t move forward. You’ve also heard him say, and he would repeat this to advocates who have been fighting so hard since the 2020 election, that he’s going to fight until his last breath to ensure that voting rights legislation passes.

“I know today marks one year,” she continued, “but that does not mean our work is done. Nobody’s packing up their bags.”

Still, activists are divided about the path forward, and even whether one realistically exists. During Biden’s speech in Atlanta last week, Black civil rights leaders filled the audience, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But many other Black activists opted to skip the event in protest, arguing that another gilded speech with no action behind it was not enough to meet the moment.

Black activists say the time for pretty speeches is over. They need an action plan from Biden on voting rights

In 2020, Black voters resuscitated Biden’s political career in the South Carolina primary, which he won handily, and from there helped him coast to the Democratic nomination. Biden was elected amid animus about a country many saw as tilted against Black Americans, sentiments brought to the surface by the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

After Biden won the presidency, Black voters in Georgia helped hand Democrats both Senate seats there, giving the party a 50-50 tie in the upper chamber — which was broken by Harris, the first Black woman to hold her office.

Biden promised a giant step toward racial equity. But even before he and Harris swore their oaths of office, Republican-controlled legislatures in many key states were preparing — and later passed — a raft of laws to restrict voting rights. Federalizing voter protections has stalled in the Senate, stymied by threats of filibuster that Democrats cannot overcome.

“You’re in the 21st century, and you mean to tell me you can’t convince two Democrats to do a carveout on the filibuster in order to pass voting rights,” Smith said, speaking of Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have both said they will not support filibuster reform, even for voting rights.

“Black folks, they’re too sophisticated in the 21st century to fall for that,” Smith added. “We don’t want platitudes and people and appealing to us because we just happen to be black. We want results.”