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Nearly a year in, Black people aren’t sold on Biden — but they haven’t given up, either

The administration touts accomplishments, but it hasn’t yet delivered on voting rights and police reform, its two most important bills to Black voters.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a democratic presidential candidate, greets congregants after a church service in West Columbia, S.C., on May 4, 2019.`
Joe Biden greets congregants after a church service in West Columbia, S.C., during the Democratic presidential campaign on May 4, 2019.Erin Schaff / The New York Times via Redux

Teresa Moore said she was ashamed to admit that she considered not voting in the last presidential election because she found the options “uninspiring.” Her husband advised her to “take inventory on the choices and vote.” 

So, Moore said, she pored through speeches and researched the candidates’ proposed initiatives and decided on Joe Biden, “because he promised he would not forget Black people once he got in office.”

After nearly a year of observing Biden’s work in office, Moore said she is less enthusiastic about her vote and concerned about his administration’s commitment to fulfill his campaign promises.

“I don’t want to judge too soon,” said Moore, 47, a human resources specialist in suburban Chicago, “but I can’t say I’m excited about what I have seen. I have seen bills passed protecting Asian Americans against hate crimes and other particular groups of people. Those bills were needed. But I haven’t seen much for Black people.”

She paused.

“But then again,” Moore said, “the Republicans won’t support anything [Biden] wants to get done to help us without a big fight or rejection. Plus, he’s not getting enough help from his own party. So while I’m disappointed, I do know what’s really going on. It’s not all his fault.”

Moore’s ambivalence mirrors that of many Black Americans who had hoped by now for laws that improve their lives. Biden’s approval rating has fallen sharply in recent months, particularly amid concerns about inflation, immigration and Covid-19. 

Biden’s approval among Black Americans remains higher than among voters more broadly. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll of 1,998 voters released this month, 58 percent of Black respondents said they approved of the job Biden was doing as president, compared to 43 percent of all voters. 

However, Biden’s approval among Black voters has been sliding throughout the year. A poll by HIT Strategies showed that 48 percent of Black voters said in November that Biden was addressing their needs, compared to 66 percent of respondents in June. The poll reported a margin of sampling error of 3.1 percentage points. 

Black people are particularly concerned that the two bills that have become cornerstones of Black-centered policy — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — have yet to reach the Senate floor after they passed in the Democratic-controlled House this year. At the same time, even the critics allow that Biden has a checklist of achievements that, while they are not specific to Black people, serve their best interests.

The Biden wins 

Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, said Biden has done some historic work that has had an impact on Black Americans. It has, he said, largely gone under the radar. 

“I’m going to push back very forcefully on the idea that the Biden administration hasn’t done enough for Black people,” Morial said. He and seven other civil rights leaders met with Biden twice this year to lay out a platform of myriad concerns they wanted the administration to address to help Black people in America.

Morial pointed to Biden’s Cabinet, which is one of the most racially diverse in presidential history, as well as the “ significant number of African American judges” appointed to federal benches. According to the Brookings Institution, Biden has 22 Black members in his administration, including Michael S. Regan, the first Black person to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Donald Trump had three Black members in his Cabinet; Barack Obama had 34.

National Urban League CEO Marc Morial testifies about the 2020 census before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Jan. 9, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

“The president was asked in the American Rescue Plan to include racial equity provisions and to make sure that there was money going to cities, not just states, where we have Black mayors,” Morial said. “The president and his team and Congress did that. The president was asked to put together a broad infrastructure plan with racial equity provisions, including broadband, including water systems, so we could address issues like in Flint, Michigan. The president and his team delivered on that.”

Biden last month signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a monumental achievement that is projected to have significant impacts on clean water, roads and bridges and internet service in underserved Black communities, opening the way to better health care and job opportunities, among other benefits.

He also signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a sweeping bill to provide emergency relief related to the coronavirus pandemic. The plan was also designed to expand access to wealth creation through small-business ownership in Black communities. Biden directed federal agencies to use government contracting authority to increase their procurement from small, disadvantaged Black-owned businesses by 50 percent. 

Another part of the plan is about implementing rigorous regulatory reform to help Black Americans own and stay in their homes as result of the impact of the pandemic, the White House contends.

Biden also signed an executive order in October to increase and improve educational opportunities for Black people, from early childhood through college. It also proposes eliminating discriminatory practices that limit access to education and increasing financial aid to historically Black colleges and universities. 

“Since Day One, the Biden-Harris administration has taken a whole-of-government approach to advancing racial equity and enhancing the lives of Black families across the nation,” said Erica P. Loewe, the White House’s director of African American media. “The president and vice president have already delivered on their promise by increasing investment and economic opportunity in Black communities, improving health outcomes, providing historic support for HBCUs, taking action to reform our criminal justice system and using executive authority to protect voting rights.”

Floyd L. Griffin, the former mayor of Milledgeville, Georgia, a Democrat who is running for secretary of state in Georgia, said Biden’s grade would be a “B+ at this point, considering the circumstances.”

“My problem with the Democrats is what’s going on in Congress and especially in the Senate and not coming together with the president’s agenda,” Griffin said.

“Over the last 11 months, President Biden has been implementing the platform he ran on. But he’s having a rough time getting it done, especially from the Senate, and he can only do what he can do. The legislative branch has ended up not doing what they are supposed to do, and especially the Democrats.”

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrive at an Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 15.Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

In an interview with Charlamagne Tha God on his new Comedy Central show, Vice President Kamala Harris sounded frustrated that the administration is not being recognized for what it has done for the Black community.

“Because we are in office, we do the things like the child tax credit, which is going to reduce Black child poverty by 50 percent — on track to do that,” Harris said. “We do things that are about saying that our Department of Justice is going to do these investigations and require that we end chokeholds and have body cameras. It is the work of saying we are going to get lead out of pipes and paint because our babies are suffering because of that.

“It is the work of saying people who ride public transit deserve the same kind of dignity that anybody else does, so let’s improve that system,” she said. “It is the work of saying that we have got to bring down prescription drug costs because folks who have diabetes should not be dying because they don’t have enough money in their pocket. It’s about saying Black maternal mortality is a real issue that must be treated by everybody, including the White House, as a serious issue.

“I hear the frustration,” she said. “But let’s not deny the impact that we’ve had.”

The Biden misses

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., dealt a blow to Biden when he declared over the weekend that he will not support the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s signature bill that includes sweeping social safety net provisions and ways to address climate change. He effectively killed the bill, which has no known Republican support. 

Similarly, lack of support has stalled the Lewis voting and Floyd policing bills, which are the administration’s signature initiatives as far as Black people are concerned. 

The Lewis bill would restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and require states and localities with systemic histories of crafting discriminatory voting laws to get special preclearance from the Justice Department before they enact such laws. The Floyd bill would seek to reduce racial bias in policing, misconduct by officers and excessive force used by law enforcement. The bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled House on a mostly party-line vote, was blocked by Republican opposition in the evenly split Senate.

Demonstrators demanding voting rights protest in front of the White House on Nov. 17.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

“The next couple of months are going to tell a very important story,” Morial said. “I’m not going to give out the MVP award at halftime. The administration gets a B+ overall but an incomplete on voting and police reform. I am as impatient as anyone. But we have to be very seasoned and mature and understand that the reason we’re in this situation is because you have a couple of Democrats not supporting the president and the Republican obstructionists on the other side with the filibuster. It’s not that the president isn’t fighting for these bills.”

But is he fighting hard enough? “I will say that he made a lot of speeches and remarks about getting the infrastructure deal done,” said Moore, the Illinois woman. “You could feel how important it was to him. I’d like to see that same enthusiasm for the bills Black people want to see passed.”

A Democratic strategist said Black people’s concerns center on feeling neglected or taken for granted after they were a driving force in the election and the party’s winning the Senate. 

“I do think there is a frustration that you asked us to go above and beyond and show up in the middle of a pandemic and amid all the voter suppression, and not only did we deliver, but we also delivered the Senate,” the strategist said. “And what did we get for it? We get a lot of evasiveness about the filibuster, a lot of excuses about Joe Manchin and being patient.’”

Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the late civil rights icon, said he will lead demonstrations in Washington, D.C., on his father’s birthday next year to push for the voting bill to become law. His disenchantment with Biden was evident.

Martin Luther King III speaks at the March On for Washington and Voting Rights rally in Washington on Aug. 28.Pete Kiehart / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“The president has said that ‘you had my back,’ essentially meaning the ‘Black and brown communities were reasons why I was elected, and I’m going to have your back.’ That means delivering on voting rights and some police reform issues that just did not happen, as well,” King said. “It seems like the administration and Congress took on the challenge of the infrastructure bill, and what we did see was what happens when the administration puts their full focus and weight behind something. What we are saying is that we want to see that full weight and power used for the people.”

Loewe, the White House African American media director, said the administration is adamant about fulfilling its objectives for the voting and policing bills.

“The president and his team are fighting to deliver voting rights legislation, which he has called a ‘must-pass,’ urgent priority to fight disgusting attacks on the constitutional right to vote and the rule of law based on a dangerous lie,” she said, referring to Republican-backed propaganda that the 2020 election was stolen through voting improprieties. “He’s also fighting for police reform and was deeply saddened that after Democratic negotiators worked hard to find common ground with their counterparts and won the support of leading law enforcement organizations, Republican lawmakers have stood in the way of crucial progress.”

A messaging problem

For all the Biden administration has accomplished, many Black voters are unaware, which means it has a messaging problem.

“It seems to me they didn’t make a big deal out of the things they have done,” Moore said. “And that’s unfortunate, because it impacts how people look at the administration. The achievements so far aren’t as big to us as the crime bill and voting bill. But they matter because it’s helping us, which is what we all want.”

The Democratic strategist said: “I think the White House is going to have to calibrate carefully their response messaging to Black voters. Black voters did and do care about getting Donald Trump out of office, fixing the economy and addressing Covid, but on the niche issues that are really going to animate the base of the party, the base of African American support, there is a growing disappointment.  

“Biden has an enthusiasm challenge for 2022 and will eventually in 2024, and Black voters are a key part of the enthusiasm strategy,” the strategist added. “If you can animate and keep good faith with Black voters, there is a lot the president can do.”

Harris told Charlamagne Tha God that the administration is prepared to battle. “There is a whole lot more work to be done,” she said. “And it is not easy to do, but we will not give up. And I will not give up.” 

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