Last Friday morning, in an ostensible attempt at African American outreach, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden put his foot in it. Again.
“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump,” he quipped at the end of an otherwise uneventful interview with Breakfast Club host Charlamagne Tha God, “then you ain’t Black.”
The internet, predictably, exploded with takes. #AintBlack “trended” online. The Trump campaign almost immediately started selling #YouAintBlack T-shirts. And dozens of high profile Black Americans weighed in. Senior Advisor to the Biden campaign Symone Sanders tweeted that Biden’s comments were “in jest,” arguing that the former Vice President was simply drawing a distinction between “his record with the African American community” and Trump’s. In an appearance on MSNBC later in the day, she refused to contextualize Biden’s remarks. “I’m not going to do this,” she said. “I’m not going to even traffic in any hypothetical conversation about ‘if he is sensitive enough.’ Look: There are real issues we have to address in this country, and Joe Biden has been speaking directly to the voters . . . about those issues.”
The thing is, he hasn’t.
In fact, Charlamagne’s chief gripe was that Joe Biden failed to address the specific concerns of Black voters on his show. “It don’t have nothing to do with Trump,” he responded. “I want something for my community.” And Symone Sanders’s claim that Biden should be lauded for going on the Breakfast Club at all is belied by the fact that, other than Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden is the only major presidential candidate who hadn’t already sat for an interview with Charlamagne. “I got it on good authority that Biden’s black surrogates do not want Joe Biden to come on the Breakfast Club,” Charlamagne told Stephen Colbert this past February. “I just got questions. I got the same questions that everybody else has….I would want to know about the ‘94 crime bill… I would also want to know why he can’t simply apologize for making a mistake.”
Biden has since apologized for the “you ain’t black” remark, saying “I should not have been so cavalier. I’ve never, never, ever taken the African American community for granted.” But he still hasn’t meaningfully addressed Charlamagne’s questions, taking for granted that he doesn’t need to to secure our votes. “The apology is cool,” Charlamagne said Sunday on Joy-Ann Reid’s MSNBC show, “but the best apology is a black Agenda. . . When you have Black people who have the nerve, the audacity, the unmitigated gall to act like citizens and demand something of our votes it’s a problem? You’ve got whites telling us to stay in our place and you got Black people saying oh ‘stop, it’s now the time you’re gonna get Trump related—It has to come to a point where we stop putting the burden on Black voters to show up for Democrats and start putting the burden on Democrats to show up for Black voters.”
For some, the problem with Biden’s remark boils down to who is “allowed” to define Blackness. As Executive Director of Vote Black PAC tweeted, “white politicians should probably refrain from defining Blackness for Black people. Just a thought.” The name “Jemele” trended on Twitter after journalist and former ESPN host Jemele Hill weighed in, writing that “the issue wasn’t what Joe Biden said, because it was accurate. The issue was that it came from Biden.” Touré, journalist and cultural critic, made a similar argument:
“Is it racist in terms of a white man shouldn’t be saying you’re not Black if x? Sure. Is it racist as in a comment that actually oppresses people? No. And does it disagree with what many of us say about Black Trump voters? I mean, are they really invited to the cookout?”
But the problem isn’t just that Biden is white, it’s that Democrats indulge in a kind of racial essentialism—a presumption that political allegiances are a part of one’s racial identity. It’s obvious that someone like Biden is not in a position to define what does and doesn’t constitute true Blackness. But nobody should be portraying Black voters as a uniform bloc whose political loyalties are predetermined by their identity.
As obvious as it should be that in politics, biology isn’t destiny, throughout the 2020 campaign cycle, political experts have consistently processed the race through a narrow identity framework. Identity, of course, exerts significant influence on how we see the world, but leaning on racial identity as the exclusive lens with which we understand politics has caused the public to miss important trends.
For example, pundits bemoaned the fact that voters chose “another white guy” to be the Democratic nominee—arguing that Americans were simply too bigoted to chose one of the Black, Brown, Asian, or female candidates. But they failed to adequately interrogate why Black, Brown, and female voters overwhelmingly chose either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders: Black voters themselves clearly don’t agree that their interests are automatically better represented by a person who shares their racial identity.
Politicos continue to scratch their heads over Biden’s Latino voter problem—in Nevada and California he lost to Sanders among Latino voters by 30 points—without probing the link between that community’s high uninsurance rate and their enthusiasm for the “Medicare for All” candidate. The lack of attention to voters’ actual needs and concerns makes it impossible to shore up their support. Under the narrow “representation as racial justice” framework, Biden is unclear how to attract Latino (or Black) voters without simply adding a Latina (or African American) to the ticket.
The essentialist understanding of politics leads to confusion and even extreme cognitive dissonance. Black voters’ preference for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 fed into the fallacious narrative that Sanders’ supporters were nothing but “Bernie Bros.” That narrative was complicated by the fact that in 2020, Bernie had the least-white, most female coalition in the race. But it also led some pundits to suggest that Black Sanders supporters somehow could not really be authentically Black. One memorably declared that I and other Black female Bernie supporters should be relegated to “the island of misfit Black girls”—calling into question our status as “legitimate” Black women. And in 2016, the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite was adopted by POC Berners after a Washington Post op ed asked “Why Did Sanders Dominate Saturday? Caucuses in Whiter States.’ Among the states in question? Hawaii—the least white state in the country.
In the context of these arguments, Biden’s arrogant suggestion that voters who don’t enthusiastically support him “ain’t black” is just the latest example of an ongoing trend.
Of course, it’s appropriate to note political patterns, like the overwhelming preference of Black voters for Democrats. But calling into question a person’s blackness, even in “jest,” betrays an unwillingness to engage with the substantive, non-racial reasons why members of historically marginalized groups make political choices. That political blindness is an electoral liability for Democrats, who miss out on opportunities to recruit voters because they are overly wedded to faulty presumptions.
The reality is that there is broad diversity of opinion within racial groups. While race tends to influence one’s political perspective, so do other factors: One’s class status, their geographic location, their religion, and their age, for instance. 37 percent of Black voters oppose abortion—likely because Black voters tend to be more religous—but upwards of 80 percent vote with the pro-choice Democratic party. Black voters support single-payer health care more than any other ethnic group (74 percent compared to 44 percent of white voters), yet older Black voters overwhelmingly chose Joe Biden, who has said he would veto any Medicare for All bill that made it to his desk. These apparent contradictions don’t necessarily mean Black voters “vote against their interests.” Rather, they have competing interests, which they must rank and prioritize.
Black voters who oppose abortion might choose to vote Democrat because they value voting rights and social services more. Older Black voters might like Bernie’s message, but put a premium on electability. “I like what Bernie is saying,” went a common refrain, “but I’m afraid he can’t beat Trump.” It is completely rational for voters to rank their priorities in this way—even if I don’t always agree with the outcome—and pundits who hope to paint an accurate picture of what’s going on with the electorate should internalize that racial interests don’t always come in at number one—even among Black voters.
An essentialist analysis leaves no room for the possibility that an affluent Black voter might prioritize the corporate tax breaks promised by the Republican Party over so-called racial interests. (As Dave Chapelle once joked about Trump: “he’s is fighting for me,” not poor whites). It also fails to answer why younger Black voters overwhelmingly chose Bernie Sanders. It ignores how risk management plays into electoral choices, and presumes votes for Biden were substantive rather than strategic. And it writes off the millions of Black voters who stayed home in 2016—not because they are “privileged” or indifferent or keen on Trump, but because they feel taken for granted at best, and at worst, ignored. How can the Democratic Party hope to reverse that trend if they simply dismiss those voters as deficient—as somehow “doing blackness wrong” and being unworthy of further courtship?
Jemele Hill argued that Biden’s remark was justified because he was “with us” politically:
“I don’t have a problem with the statement because he was clearly referring to this from a policy and track record standpoint… If you’re black and you support anti-black policies and positions, then that makes you…? You’re still technically black, but you ain’t with us.”
But from a policy and track record standpoint, Biden’s claim to speak for Black political aspirations looks even worse. It seems fair to ask whether Biden, whose record on race includes co-authoring the infamous 1994 crime bill, effusively eulogizing segregationist Strom Thurmond, lying about his civil rights record, repeatedly advocating cuts to Social Security—on which elderly Black Americans disproportionately rely, and famously railroading Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, is “with us.” Does opposing marijuana legalization, as Joe Biden does, make you “with us”? Biden’s rhetorical framing laundered his spotty record at the expense of Black identity interests, and Black voters who object are more than justified in doing so.
Biden has apologized for his remark. But the thinking that motivated it remains unchallenged. It’s that essentialist mindset—the belief that Black voters are blood-bound to the Democratic Party—that drives the party’s indifference to Black voters, and enables Bidens to hold himself out as a “pro-Black” option despite repeatedly betraying Black America. It’s essentialist thinking that leads politicians and pundits alike to misread political diversity as a racial category error (#BernieMadeMeWhite), and ultimately, it empowers Democrats to neuter Black political agency with the threat: you’re either with us, or you don’t even exist.
It’s not just Biden who owes Black voters an apology. It’s a Democratic political establishment which only sees Black voters when they’re standing in the line of fire, protecting party interests. Sean Combs is right: #TheBlackVoteAintFree. And it’s time for the Democratic Party to pay up.