“Trump: You’re fired! Democracy saved! Thanks, Black voters!”
So reads a poster at Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, across from the White House. Arch and overflowing with spirit, the sign nods to the consequential role that Black voters played in the 2020 presidential election.
In March, South Carolina’s Black voters — who make up more than 60% of the Palmetto State’s Democratic electorate — revived now President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, after the former vice president’s poor performances in the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses.
Last week, vote counts from cities including Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia — all important areas with significant Black populations — helped Biden flip several of the “blue wall” states that President Donald Trump won in 2016.
And don’t forget Georgia. A recount is expected, and CNN hasn’t yet projected a winner. But Biden has a small lead in the Peach State — which the Republican nominee has won in every presidential election since 1996 — owing at least in part to crucial gains made in the Atlanta metro area, which has a large Black population.
“Especially in those moments when the campaign was at its slowest, the African American community stood up again for me,” Biden said in his victory speech on Saturday. “You all had my back, and I will have yours.”
To examine what, exactly, having Black Americans’ backs might look like under the Biden administration and how future Democratic Party successes may very well depend on the work of Black organizers, I spoke with Alicia Garza, the co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the principal at the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What motivated Black voters to show up to the polls in such high numbers?
Black voters tend to participate in high numbers, so we saw an extension of that. Black voters were pretty clear about what was at stake in this election. There were many conversations about the overtures that the Republican Party was making to Black voters. But what we saw was that, as much noise as the party made, it wasn’t successful. The vast majority of Black voters, both Black men and Black women, voted to eject the President from the White House.
I think that high Black participation had to do with a lot of things. It had to do with Trump’s ties to White nationalists and White militias. Black voters don’t play that. We’re like: No, no thank you.
It had to do with the coronavirus response, or lack thereof. It had to do with health care. Black voters, particularly those in the South, have been under a regime that’s been denying us access to affordable, quality health care, compared with our counterparts.
It had to do with economic issues. When the Black Futures Lab conducted the Black Census, the No. 1 issue that Black voters cared about was the economy — the fact that wages are too low to support a family.
It had to do with police violence. The highly publicized killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor: It was really clear to Black voters that not only does the current administration have no plans to address police violence — it’s creating a culture in which accountability is fleeting and in many cases nonexistent.
I think that Black voters saw our votes as a form of protest. Black voters saw a direct connection between protesting in the streets and protesting at the polls.
One of the most remarkable figures to emerge from the election is Stacey Abrams. Arguably America’s most visible voting rights champion, she proved that years of working to energize latent voters can pay off; Georgia has become a surprise battleground state.
To what extent does the Democratic Party’s future electoral success in regions including the South depend on supporting the Black organizers who’ve done heroic work despite Republican efforts to suppress Black voter turnout?
The people who reached out to Black voters this cycle — and every cycle before — are Black organizers. When we look at what’s happening in Georgia, as well as in states across the South and Southwest, we see that Black organizers prioritized making sure that our communities were powerful in the process, given everything at stake.
That’s an important story to tell, because often people talk about Black voters as if we’re a monolith and as if we just wake up one day and are like: Oh, we’re voting. There was a lot of work done by groups such as the New Georgia Project and Georgia Stand Up. These are a couple of our partners, and they’ve been working for years with little investment and little support.
In this cycle, we really invested in these partners because we wanted them to be successful at organizing communities throughout Georgia. And that’s exactly what happened.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Black voters acted like a firewall for American democracy. How can the Biden administration follow through on its commitment to Black communities?
The Biden administration can do everything in its power to distinguish itself from the previous one. One thing I think that Biden’s campaign really struggled with was not getting wrapped up in the messages that were coming from the Republican Party.
In particular, I think that the messages about rioting and looting in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement were a trap for the campaign. What the Biden administration will need to do is prioritize some of the issues that are attacking Black communities first and worst.
That work looks like asking what it means to create a Department of Justice that actually provides oversight to states in regard to upholding civil and human rights.
It looks like making sure that we’re moving resources from the federal government to states to try to address some of the huge disparities that Black communities face, from health care to housing to jobs.
It looks like investing in a caring economy, in an economy that’s not based on punishment. The Biden campaign struggled to articulate its vision for justice for Black communities that are being attacked by systemic racism.
The way to pay homage to Black communities for our service and our dedication to the Democratic Party is to address the issues that we care about. It’s pretty simple.
As we go into Georgia’s two runoff elections, I think that we have to stay focused on what it is that people want and need. There have been many conversations over the past few days about moderate politics, but the reality is that most Black voters don’t care about that. Most Black voters aren’t swayed by those messages. What motivates Black voters is the possibility of change.
And so as long as the Biden administration stays focused on that — on making sure that Black lives actually matter by taking on the recommendations that groups have put forward to improve Black communities — it will do well by Black voters. And by doing that, it will also improve the lives of so many other people who aren’t Black but who are suffering under some of the same disparities to different degrees.
That so many White voters again backed Trump after what America has seen over the past four years illustrates that the country has a sturdy White constituency that’s willing to ignore or embrace racism. What might the lingering influence of Trumpism mean for how the Biden administration governs?
It’s important, especially in this political context, to be everyone’s president. That’s the job. But it’s true that for too long, the Democratic Party has been overly focused on what White voters want, though White voters aren’t turning out for the party. We have to be honest about that.
This isn’t to say that the Biden administration shouldn’t pay attention to what White folks want. It’s to say that I don’t see there being a danger of White people being left out. Never in this country’s history has that happened.
I think that the real challenge for the Biden administration will be to tell a story about a way forward that includes Black voters. The Biden slogan was “build back better.”
The moral thing to do is to identify what change looks like. It looks like no longer prioritizing one group of people over another. It looks like policy. It looks like resources. It looks like investing where we haven’t really invested before. It looks like a lot of things that will actually help everyone. The way forward isn’t always going to be popular, but it’s the right thing to do.