Election 2020 Politics

There’s not much upside for Biden in attacking black voters who don’t support him

The comment was met with ridicule and outrage from the right — from staunch Trump allies, and notably from black conservatives.

“1.3 million black Americans already voted for Trump in 2016,” Sen. Tim Scott (R.-S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, tweeted. “This morning, Joe Biden told every single one of us we “ain’t black.” I’d say I’m surprised, but it’s sadly par for the course for Democrats to take the black community for granted and brow beat those that don’t agree.”

Other African Americans who aren’t conservative criticized Biden for the remark, accusing him of a level of cockiness that has made them uncomfortable with his campaign since he launched it more than a year ago. As the vice president to America’s first black president, they say Biden often comes off as if he is entitled to the black vote.

Keith Boykin, a former Clinton White House aide who teaches African American studies at Columbia, tweeted that as a white man, Biden does not get to question the blackness of black people.

“Somebody needs to tell Joe Biden that this comment to Charlamagne was a mistake,” Boykin tweeted. “Yes, Biden is a much better choice for black people than racist Trump. But white people don’t get to tell black people what is black. Biden still has to EARN our vote.”

Biden sees a clear choice between him and Trump, who has a history of doing and saying things that many black Americans find offensive, like defending white nationalists marching in support of Confederate memorial. To the former vice president, that point, which Biden made in his campaign announcement, should be obvious to black Americans. That’s how Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign, explained his comments Friday after the interview.

Biden in the interview defended his comment by saying: “Take a look at my record man. I extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. I have a record that is second to none. the NAACP has endorsed me every time that I’ve run. I mean, come on. Take a look at the record.”

But telling a black American who prefers Trump over Biden that he or she isn’t black reeks of the paternalistic rhetoric that has often found Biden at the receiving end of criticism from black Americans. Biden has repeatedly been accused of talking down to them.

In 2007, he grabbed headlines during a debate for telling viewers that he spent months lecturing black men on safe sex.

“I spent last summer going through the black sections of my town, holding rallies in parks, trying to get black men to understand it is not unmanly to wear a condom, getting women to understand they can say no, getting people in the position where testing matters,” he said. “I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack got tested for AIDS.”

And while Biden points to his record on advocating for policies that benefit black Americans, it is actually that same record that led some black voters to vote against him in the primary.

Before officially announcing his run, I wrote for the Fix that “During Biden’s congressional career, he pushed several pieces of legislation that lengthened criminal sentences, particularly for drugs favored by nonwhite users. That legislation helped create America’s dismal mass incarceration crisis. The United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world, and people of color are disproportionately impacted.”

Those perplexed by Biden’s statement may wonder how he justifies it. One possible answer is anti-Trump black Americans.

Since before Trump entered the White House, there have been black Americans who have questioned his black supporters’ allegiance to black America. Author and podcast host Touré tweeted that Biden’s comments align with what most black Americans “actually feel.”

There is no data showing that most black Americans question the blackness of Trump supporters. But very often when polling shows that Trump does have some black support — 3 percent, according to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll — one of the first questions some black Americans ask is: Who are these black Americans?

The implication is that black Trump supporters are so rare that most black Americans don’t know many.

But wondering who black Trump supporters are is not the same thing as questioning their blackness. And questioning their commitment to the black community because of their support for Trump is not the same as questioning their blackness.

And perhaps, more importantly — even if it was, many black Americans don’t believe that Biden is the person to do that. The idea that a white man is in the place to question the blackness of a black person is not a popular one in black America — especially a white man who is still trying to convince some black Americans that his views on race have evolved over the past 30 years.

If Biden wants to increase the number of black voters backing him in 2020 over the number that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, or at least not allow any more to slip to Trump (as the Trump campaign hopes will happen), showing them why he believes he is the best candidate for black America would probably be more effective than attacking black Trump supporters.

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