“Black voters have a PhD in white people.”
That was the lesson, Erika Wilson, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said white Democrats need to take from the 2020 election.
In the Democratic primaries, Black voters backed Joe Biden as their candidate, even after the former vice president suffered big defeats in the largely white Iowa and New Hampshire contests. In the South Carolina primary, where Black people made up nearly two-thirds of the electorate, Biden won every county in the state and nearly half the vote in a five-person race. His closest rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, got less than 20%. While many from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party chided those voters as conservatives who came out against the agendas of progressives candidates Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Wilson said what it showed was craftiness among Black voters.
In the aftermath of the election, BuzzFeed News spoke to Black voters who welcomed Biden’s victory but questioned Democrats’ commitment to racial justice.
Black people, Wilson said, had long concluded that only Biden could defeat Trump. They didn’t all turn to Biden because they liked his centrist approach, his history on race, or because he served as vice president to the nation’s first Black president. Black voters acted strategically, she said. They used their doctorates in whiteness to ascertain which candidate would appeal to just enough white voters while still hopefully acknowledging the debt owed to Black people. Simply put, when standing in the polling booth, Black voters don’t have the luxury to vote for their dream candidate. Wilson said that while many white liberals are now celebrating the defeat of racism, she doesn’t think they’re ready to truly confront white supremacy.
“Black voters are masters in acting defensively,” Wilson said. “There was a lot of consternation by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party when the Black voters of South Carolina rejected Bernie and breathed life into Biden’s campaign…I’d consider myself much further to the left and Biden wouldn’t have been my preferred candidate, but I think it showed that the Black voters have a…sort of understanding of how to navigate and survive a system of white supremacy.”
“When it comes to doing the hard work of upending systems of oppression and subordination that impact Black people, there’s not an appetite for that,” said Wilson, who teaches courses on critical race theory. “But there is an appetite to go back to the days where the president wasn’t openly cavorting with white supremacists.”
White people hate the idea of being called racist more than they hate racism, she concluded.
“There was a reputational harm to white folks, generally, to feel like they are associated with that. Now they can feel good that the narrative might be that they chose another direction.”
Now Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States — and in large part he has Black voters, and particularly Black women, to thank for that. As election results trickled in on election night, Democrats braced for another stinging defeat. Trump was outperforming expectations among white voters in Ohio and Iowa and Latinx voters in Florida and Texas. But as election night turned into election week, and Black votes came pouring in from places like Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, Biden’s path to victory emerged. And soon, Democrats across the country started taking to social media to praise Black women, who not only cast 91% of their votes for Biden, but also were key organizers in the effort to get out the vote in several states.
Overnight, Stacey Abrams, who lost her own race to become Georgia governor two years ago but continued to work to make a Democrat win there possible, became a rock star among liberals. Largely left out of that narrative were the names of the countless other Black women that made a Biden win possible: LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project, and Helen Butler of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, among others. Soon we will find out just how interested white liberals are in doing anything more for Black women than cheering them on. To be sure, Trump’s downfall ushering in Kamala Harris, who is of Black and Indian ancestry, is a symbolic and welcomed victory for many Black women, but just how committed the country is to uplifting their voices remains an open question.
The counting is largely over, and most Americans have accepted the results. But while giddy liberals took to the streets to celebrate, Trump went on the attack, claiming, without evidence, massive fraud in those very same cities where Black voters put Biden over the top. So while Democrats are busy thanking Black people, and Republicans are working to invalidate their ballots, Black voters have a clear message for Democrats: Listen to Black people. Trust Black people. Work with Black people to deconstruct America’s racial hierarchy.
Toni Sanders, a program manager for a DC nonprofit, spent election week at Black Lives Matter Plaza, guarding the fence that she and other activists had erected this summer to memorialize the lives of Black people killed by police across the country. The fence, which separates the plaza from the White House, is covered with the names and photos of those killed.
Early on in the week, Sanders was there to protect the fence from Trump supporters, who she said had been coming by and trying to deface the memorial. But on Saturday night, after the media called the election for Biden, there was a new threat: jubilant Democrats descending on the plaza to celebrate the president’s defeat.
“They were living their best lives marching through the streets talking about, We’re free now, a white person actually said, ‘We’re free now,’” recalled Sanders. “As a Black gay woman … I’m looking like, Are we free? … Or are you free?”
Sanders got especially upset when one white guy tried to take a picture in front of the fence while doing a handstand, leaning his feet against it to try to keep his balance.
“I just walked right up to him and knocked his feet down and said, ‘Are you crazy? This is a memorial to these people,’” said Sanders, she was enraged when she saw his feet on the memorial for Karon Hylton-Brown, who died after Washington police crashed their car into the scooter he was riding. Police say they were trying to stop the 20-year-old because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. “His feet were right on Karon’s name. And I’m like, ‘He was just murdered.’ And here you are celebrating your freedoms and democracy, over here, putting your feet on this Black man’s name, who was murdered. You’re so fucking clueless.”
To Sanders that cluelessness pervaded the people who arrived on the plaza that night. Some put stickers with the Biden–Harris logo or slogans like “Loser” or “Dump Trump” on top of the dead people’s names and faces. Others popped bottles of champagne in the plaza. It all represented a kind of carelessness that neither Black voters nor Black activists get to enjoy in this country.
“When we were all out there together protesting this summer for Black Lives Matter, we couldn’t have water,” Sanders said. “So it was interesting watching white people, especially Saturday night, actually popping bottles of champagne in the middle of the street, spewing the champagne on folks and openly drinking alcohol and beer … I’m watching the cops not do anything at all … It’s a slap in the face to every Black activist, every revolutionary who has been out fighting for the cause … It’s just a slap in the face to us all when people are so openly celebrating this occasion and in it disregarding all of the Black people that you had to step on to get there.”
For Sanders, the fight for Black liberation will get harder with the election of Biden and Harris. “I didn’t get beat and teargassed so that you could be praising top cop and crime bill writer over this space,” said Sanders, referring to Harris’s time as attorney general of California and Biden’s work getting the 1994 crime bill passed.
She expects the Biden White House to oversee a return to an acceptable form of racism. Where Black people are still at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, but people can look away from the issue in a way that was impossible with Trump, who time and time again refused to denounce the actions of some of his racist supporters. While Sanders is glad Trump was defeated, it was hard for her to see victory in the celebrations that took over Black Lives Matter Plaza on Saturday night.
“Biden won and white people see that so much as a show of democracy and freedom and the quote-unquote ‘power of the people,’” Sanders said. “[Biden’s] racism is so much more covert than Trump’s that it’s going to be hard to keep the allies engaged. It’s going to be hard to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is racist.’”
Already Democrats are fighting over just how much the Black Lives Matter movement and one of its key slogans, “defund the police,” cost votes in the election. For Sanders and other activists, “defund the police” isn’t about getting votes at the ballot box, but instead about rallying people to the cause of Black liberation outside of typical electoral politics.
“The issue here isn’t a slogan … The issue here is what the police are actually doing,” Sanders said. “And you’d rather point out that we’re saying ‘defund the police’ than actually look at the issues that we’re bringing forth to you. And that says more about you than what you’d like for it to say.”
Sanders is worried about what message Democrats are taking from this election. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip and a Black lawmaker representing parts of South Carolina, has been widely credited with Biden’s South Carolina comeback. Back in February, Clyburn endorsed Biden just three days before the primary election there.
“I am fearful for the future of this country,” Clyburn said. “I’m fearful for my daughters and their future and their children and their children’s future.”
“We know Joe. But more importantly, Joe knows us,” the 80-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement said. But with Democrats reeling from a string of losses in down-ballot races, in recent days, Clyburn implored Democrats to stop talking about the Black Lives Matter slogan “defund the police.”
“These headlines can kill a political effort,” Clyburn said. But Wilson, the UNC law professor, thinks now, in the afterglow of the 2020 election, is as good a time as any for Black voters to push Democrats to act.
“In terms of the Democrats’ commitment to racial justice, I’m concerned,” Wilson said. “It can’t be more of the same where the Democrats ride Black people to get to office and then don’t do anything for Black people and throw Black people under the bus … The thing the election should have shown is the pivotal position that strong Black voter support and turnout gets. So going back to some milquetoast, centrist position aimed at attracting white moderate voters, it’s not going to work … I mean, the next Trump will probably be smarter, more sophisticated, and do worse harm.”
It’s all about how things are framed, said Wilson. Many politicians seem more interested in talking about the potential loss of voters because of Black Lives Matter, without talking about how embracing some of that messaging results in gains in Black voter turnout. “That should be the focus — not who didn’t show up, who did show up.”
Like Sanders, Wilson also doesn’t think that Black voters can depend on the Democratic Party for liberation. Citing the groundwork by the political organizers in Georgia, Wilson sees a new path forward.
“One thing that’s encouraging … is the possibility of Black people organizing their own power base outside of the [Democratic Party],” Wilson said. “Their own nucleus of power that can make things move not just on the national level, but on the local level too. I mean, look, what happened in Georgia? I think hopefully that’s the road map in terms of what can be done in other places, especially in the South. I think the idea that Black voters are experts at playing defense could turn to us starting to play a little bit more offensive in terms of recognizing our own strength in organizing and collectively the swing role that we can play … We can’t let Biden–Harris off the hook. You have to continue to demand concrete policies that benefit our communities and not let them get away with the idea that they have to reach across the aisle at our expense. That can’t be it. It can’t be that anymore. We have to keep up this momentum.”
And while Democrats celebrated Biden’s victory on a national level, in down-ballot races Republicans did well, and some local measures designed to tackle racism were defeated. In California, voters rejected the idea of affirmative action, voted against raising business taxes to send more dollars to schools in Black and brown communities, and opted to return the state to a cash bail system.
“I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of white voters want business as usual,” Wilson said. “I’m not sure that they are as committed to addressing systemic racism and having real racial justice as they are to not having an overt racist in the White House. They like their racism subtle and not in your face.”
James Lance Taylor, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, said California voters signaled that they weren’t all that interested in attacking racial injustice in the state.
“You shun what you see as riots, but then you won’t let some of these same people into the campuses,” Taylor said. “Some of the same young people that are marching and protesting want access to UCLA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, but the abolition of affirmative action says no. So I think California voters have to make up their mind if they want to continue to say no to the quote-unquote ‘thug’ and no to the student that wants to attend Berkeley — you can’t say no to both and be consistent. And that is the contradiction of California right there. They’re saying no to both.”
This is a state, after all, where Bernie Sanders won the primary earlier this year and which enjoys a certain progressive cred. But in the end, Taylor said California and other left-leaning states have done little to address the issues of Black residents. “I just think it’s because liberals are no more comfortable with Black people than conservatives are,” Taylor said.
“Black California is not fooled. They have their own common sense about the white folk in proximity to them. There’s a particular understanding of Black Californians about white Californians that people outside of the state have no understanding of … In every possible area where there’s inequity, Blacks are at the bottom of California. California said no to changing that. And yet they’ll look at Alabama and call it racist, and look at Mississippi and call it racist. They’ll look at Trump and call him racist … And that makes them feel better about saying no to [Black people’s] policy preferences.”
Like Erika Wilson and Toni Sanders, Taylor sees a long fight ahead for racial equity in the Biden era in California and across the country. 2020 is just part of a long war over securing the liberation of Black America.
“Cheering for Kamala or voting for Kamala, I think is a cheap way of dealing with real, hard issues,” Taylor said. “People are going to come back to this in a generation from now if they have to, because issues like affirmative action are unresolved. So this is a temporary loss, a temporary setback in a protracted battle.” ●