Despite Joe Biden’s record-setting win, the story of the 2020 presidential election wasn’t the suburban-powered Blue Wave or white rejection of Donald Trump that many Democratic Party officials and political pundits anticipated. It was Black voters, and other voters of color, who pushed Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris over the top to become the most-voted-for ticket in American history. Black women in particular played a key role, not just with their votes, but by organizing communities in battleground states.
To understand what was at stake for Black voters in this election, what motivated them to the polls and what their communities expect from the Biden administration and Democratic Party moving forward, Capital & Main spoke to progressive scholar and activist Dorian Warren.
Warren, who has written for decades about racial and economic justice, is currently the president of the political organizing group Community Change and the co-host of System Check, a podcast from the Nation.
Note: Warren serves on Capital & Main’s advisory board. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital & Main: Black voters overwhelmingly supported Biden. Why?
Dorian Warren: There’s no question that Black Americans are the most cohesive voting block for the Democratic Party. Black voter turnout in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia helped flip states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And of course, Black voters were necessary to the political earthquake that turned Georgia blue.
“Most Black voters aren’t surprised that there wasn’t a mass repudiation of Trump. Racism is a hell of a drug.”
Why do Black voters, more than anybody else in America, vote so Democratic? There’s a collective history of struggle. Black voters live by what American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois called “double-consciousness” over a hundred years ago. There’s a strong group identity around what it takes to win freedom and justice for Black Americans.
Voting as a block is a collective strategy to move a racial justice agenda and defeat white supremacy. On the other hand, we also know how white Americans think, and we have to live in that world too. It was a strategic choice by Black voters in South Carolina during the Democratic primary to revive Biden’s campaign from its deathbed because of concerns that white Americans wouldn’t support the other candidates.
White voters still went for Trump over Biden. What do Black voters make of that?
Most Black voters aren’t surprised that there wasn’t a mass repudiation of Trump. Racism is a hell of a drug. Even young white voters, unlike young voters of color, went for Trump. They’re clearly learning where they stand in this country and being socialized in our racial caste system, which does very well replicating itself.
“The Democratic Party is always scared to take action on racial justice, and they always have to be pushed.”
It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing, and it means we have a lot of work to do. Especially among white progressive organizations. It can’t be on Black women in particular, and Black people more generally, to solve this country’s racial problems.
Biden launched his campaign by invoking the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and promised a racial equity plan. What does the election say about voters’ views on racial justice?
Racial justice wins. It turns people out. It’s not a side conversation or something to run away from. It was a top issue for all Biden voters, not only Black voters.
The Democratic Party is always scared to take action on racial justice, and they always have to be pushed. There was never white majority support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was the Black Freedom Movement that pushed Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass those vital pieces of legislation. Whether you go back to Abraham Lincoln and the Abolitionist movement or Roosevelt’s New Deal and workers’ rights activists, movement folks put pressure from the outside.
“The Democratic Party has abandoned states and cities. It’s not serious about governing power. What you have is this political consulting industrial complex of know-it-alls.”
This is another movement moment that we’re living in. There’s a direct line between the organizing this summer and Biden centering racial justice in his administration’s plans.
Yet, some Democratic leaders like Representative James Clyburn are blaming the party’s down ballot losses on the Black Lives Matter movement’s messaging around defunding police departments. What’s really going on?
Moderate Democrats blaming the racial justice movement should look at their own campaigns. The Right has spent 50 years building a pipeline of talented folks that share their values and ideology. Where are the Democratic Party organizations that have recruited progressive folks of color to run for local office?
The Democratic Party demobilized after 2008. President Barack Obama told everybody to go home. Where has the party been the last 10 years?
The Democratic Party has abandoned states and cities. It’s not serious about governing power. What you have is this political consulting industrial complex of know-it-alls who think they have the magic bullet and the solution to win. They cut some ads and think that that’s going to win over voters. But as labor organizer Jane McAlevey says, there’s no shortcuts. Organization and political infrastructure matter.
Despite the weak Democratic Party infrastructure and active voter suppression, Black voters turned out in record numbers. What else motivated them to the polls?
Black people understood that our whole democracy, as flawed as it is, was at stake in this election.
“We wouldn’t even be in the situation of a ‘close election’ in 2020 without the electoral college, which is an 18th century institution designed by the founders to protect the interests of slave owners.”
We barely just became a democracy. The American South after Reconstruction was a place of racial authoritarianism for a hundred years. We weren’t really a true democracy until 1965, when Black people could finally vote for real.
We wouldn’t even be in the situation of a “close election” in 2020 without the electoral college, which is an 18th century institution designed by the founders to protect the interests of slave owners. It continues to disadvantage Black, working class and poor voters across the country. But here you are a couple centuries later with Black voters basically saving the day.
Now that Black voters helped secure a win for Biden, what do they expect from his administration, especially when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and economic inequality, which disproportionately affect their communities?
In the United States, you only have to look at where Black people stand to see what’s broken about our political and economic systems. Black Americans are like canaries in a coal mine, as Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres have written. Miners brought canaries into the mines to alert them to dangerous conditions that affect the most vulnerable first.
If you look to Black folks to gauge the health of our country’s systems and redesign the flaws, it will benefit other folks too. If you defeat COVID-19, not just Black people benefit, everybody does. If you fundamentally rewrite the rules of the economy so that folks can get work, have opportunity and a living wage, that benefits everyone. Even in Florida, which went for Trump, 60% of voters approved a $15 an hour minimum wage. So there is some common ground there. This is bottom up justice that actually benefits everybody.
Black voters support economic stimulus measures, such as recurring checks, until the pandemic is over. Black folks also have new ways to talk about stimulus and investment, such as building a care infrastructure by investing in early learning, long-term child care and the majority woman of color workforce that does these jobs. Now Biden is talking about investing in care infrastructure as one of his top recovery priorities.
Movements have made these ideas popular, and now it’s time for the Democrats to actually deliver.