What in the hell is going on with Joe Biden? Is he performing a bit about a cantankerous elderly man running for president who consistently puts his foot in his mouth for laughs? Does he not realize it’s 2020 and we’ve already had a Black president, so it takes more than using “ain’t” in a sentence to appeal to Black Americans? Since we aren’t living in an episode of Black Mirror and this is a real election between a demagogue and a former vice president, I ask, again: What in the hell is going on with Biden? One thing’s for sure: He’s going to be dominating the news cycle for a few days and it won’t have anything to do with his poll numbers or his recently unveiled economic plan that would (finally) make Amazon begin paying its fair share of taxes.
The presumptive presidential nominee appeared on The Breakfast Club, a syndicated morning radio show that’s considered a “crucial stop for 2020 Democrats,” on May 22. Biden discussed campaign issues concerning the show’s audience of largely Black Americans, including who he will choose as his running mate, his perspective on decriminalizing marijuana, and his proposed economic policies. Over the course of an 18-minute interview, Biden offered long-winded commentary, but only one sound bite whipped the internet into a frenzy: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump then you ain’t Black,” Biden said. Yes, a presidential candidate really said this on a morning show that caters to hip hop and R&B audiences a.k.a. Black people.
Symone Sanders, one of Biden’s senior advisers, tried to do immediate damage control: “Vice President Biden spent his career fighting alongside and for the African American community. He won his party’s nomination by earning every vote and meeting people where they are and that’s exactly what he intends to do this November,” Sanders tweeted. “The comments made at the end of the Breakfast Club interview were in jest, but let’s be clear about what the VP was saying: he was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.”
What does it mean for a candidate to fight for Black Americans? Is it about friendship (with, in Biden’s case, former President Barack Obama, who didn’t endorse him until April)? Is it about a record of supporting civil rights legislation? Is it about pushing the boundaries of electoral politics to accommodate alternative forms of civic engagement? Is it about attempting to relate culturally, even if you don’t share in that culture? It’s the question that looms through every election and the question that few candidates broach, though they love to employ the language. Here’s the truth though: Black voters don’t owe a single candidate their support. We’re not a monolithic voting bloc that can be persuaded by politicians appearing on Black radio or talk shows or talking about the amount of hot sauce they use. And calling out our collective dissatisfaction with the person campaigning for our support isn’t some odd form of selling out, an idea that Madeleine Albright employed when she said that there was a special place in hell for women who chose to support Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton in 2016.
You can’t shame a community into supporting a campaign. You can’t shame Black people, who have a long history of fighting voter suppression and being civically engaged, into voting. You can’t scare us with a Trump presidency; our conditions were dire long before 2016. It’s not that Black voters are invested in another detrimental Trump presidency. Many of us know that there are material consequences to further slipping into an autocracy. We’re in a pandemic that has been poorly mismanaged, which is disproportionately killing Black people, and for those fortunate enough to be alive, there’s still rampant unemployment, unchecked police brutality, and a lack of equal access to healthcare that makes even giving birth fatally dangerous for Black people.
We also know that having to decide between Biden and Trump is a no-win vote. Do you want a sexual assaulter or a sexual assaulter? Do you want a white man who uses policy to further marginalize people from oppressed communities or are a white man who uses policy to further marginalize people from oppressed communities? Voting doesn’t evoke a lot of faith in the changing of our communal material conditions. Biden is, literally, fumbling an election that should be a shoe-in. Trump’s claim that he’s solely responsible for a thriving economy—a “win” still doesn’t benefit the working class—is eroding as more than 38 million people in the United States have filed for unemployment since the pandemic reached the country.
Instead of leveraging Trump’s inadequacies into his strengths—showing us what it would look like to have a competent leader at the helm—Biden is bogging himself down with, to be frank, absolute nonsense.
Essential workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic with few protections or assurances about job security; that will certainly hurt Trump in November. And though a small sliver of the U.S. population has begun protesting mandated quarantine orders in front of state houses, gyms, and other public establishments, the majority of Americans support social distancing measures and aren’t fond of Trump’s highly unusual (and dangerous) approach to governing. Instead of leveraging Trump’s inadequacies into his strengths—showing us what it would look like to have a competent leader at the helm—Biden is bogging himself down with, to be frank, absolute nonsense. Most of these missteps are avoidable for politicians who are paying attention: For instance, why is Amy Klobuchar—who has been accused of being an abusive boss—being vetted as vice president when Stacey Abrams—who has put her political neck on the line for Biden—is available? Why has Biden spoken positively—in public—about being in a coalition with segregationist senators?
Biden’s political persona, with a more than 40-year governing history, might be more of a flaw than he presumed, though he told the Breakfast Club that “I have a record of over 40 years, and I’m going to be Joe Biden. Look at my record.” We have looked at that record; it’s not as impressive as he thinks. And this is not 1992, when Bill Clinton could use a number of antics, including playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, to attract Black voters. We have had an actual Black president now, so the currency of Black cool doesn’t need to be carried and deployed by white presidential candidates attempting to pander to voters who have been clear, over and over again, about their communal priorities. End voter suppression. End police brutality. Medicare for all. Present a living wage. Otherwise, we will still be more impoverished. We will still have overall net worths of less than $5,000. We will still be subjected to gross violence, our deaths turned into online spectacles that still don’t result in justice.
Though Biden has moved further to the left on a number of issues, thanks in great part to building community with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other leftist politicians, his approach to campaigning is still reductive. The messaging of “choose me or choose Trump” is not exactly appealing to voters who need to know their concerns will, at the very least, be considered. We don’t need to be condescended to—as Obama has been apt to do—or told that voting is the only gateway to civic engagement. Instead, we need to hear the truth: No politician is owed our vote. Our tax dollars partially fund their lifestyles, and our support feeds both their power and their egos, so they must earn our vote—through authentic engagement rather than pandering, by informing us of how we can become involved beyond federal electoral politics, and by genuinely investing in turning the tide for the most marginalized among us. Anything other than that is a pathway to a second Trump presidency—and Biden might be on his way to just that.