Oh, Joe. Let’s clear up just a few things so we can move on.
A few weeks after telling Black people that “you ain’t Black” if you’re not supporting him over Donald Trump, the presumptive Democratic nominee this week declared that “Unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things”—which many interpreted as his belief that there was little to no ideological or ethnic diversity among Blacks living in the U.S.
As the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, I have a few things to say to Biden, and anyone who may be confused by this latest mini-tempest, which he apologized for on Thursday night. First, Black voters know who Joe Biden is. He’s been a public servant for over 40 years and faithfully served as the No. 2 to the first Black president.
In that role he garnered an incredible reserve of goodwill among Black Democratic primary voters, especially older Black voters who have had the boot of American racism and oppression on their necks their entire lives—a force strong enough to deny them the full rights and privileges of American democracy, but not always strong enough to kill them.
Biden is one of those white Democrats that Black people know quite well: someone who is at times a bit too familiar, who has made missteps in the past and occasionally says inappropriate things, but who at the end of the day is learning from his mistakes and whose intent is largely not to do harm. Unlike the current president—who traffics in blatant white supremacy and uses Black people as a prop to boast about himself and his accomplishments for “the blacks” (when he actually has none),
Biden’s beliefs about Black Americans are sometimes still problematic, but they are not dangerous. Trump is an existential threat to Black people and our overall democracy.
We know that a 77-year-old of any race is not going to change that much. However, after Biden’s recent gaffes, he has been swift to apologize, contextualize, and try to learn and correct himself. That is more than can be sad for the president who prides himself on being loud and wrong. A man who refuses to ever apologize, no matter how egregious his words and deeds. And someone who uses his Black supporters as proof that he’s not racist. It’s a presidential version of “Look at my Black friend!”
Biden actually has a diverse staff, and a diverse Black staff more specifically. Hopefully his staff will help him understand a few things about the third largest racial group in the U.S. Blacks in America comprise roughly 13.5 percent of the total population with roughly 44 million people from the Caribbean, the continent of Africa, and descendants of U.S. chattel slavery. According to the Pew Research Center, “there were 4.2 million black immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016, up from 816,000 in 1980… Since 2000 alone, the number of black immigrants in the U.S. has risen 71%.” The voluntary immigration of Caribbean and African immigrants to the United States is often overlooked by politicians and policy makers and the cultural and partisan nuances are often ignored when all Blacks are lumped together, unlike Latinx and Asian-American groups. In addition, there are an estimated 3.5 million Black non-citizens currently residing in the U.S. Although the number of undocumented Black individuals are not growing at the same rate as people from Central America or Asia, Black undocumented people face greater rates of deportation due to residential segregation, systemic racism, and over-policing of Black communities across the nation.
There is also a rich history of Black migration from the South to Northern, Midwestern, and West Coast cities. And more recently, the (forced) migration of Blacks from major urban centers to the suburbs cannot be ignored. Therefore, when the president speaks of protecting the “suburbs” he ignores the fact that the share of blacks in large metro areas living in suburbs rose from 37 percent in 1990 to 51 percent in 2010 (Brookings).
Biden’s definition of Blackness must take into account the ethnic, geographic, and nuanced policy distinctions of Black voters. And although the vast majority of Black Americans vote for the Democratic party candidate in presidential elections, Biden would be wise to not ignore the conservative Black members of the party who vote Democratic largely due to the white nationalist nature of the Republican party. These Black voters may be more closely aligned with GOP policy positions on a woman’s right to choose, LGBTQ issues, labor policies, or foreign policy, yet vote for the Democratic nominee instead of supporting a party that has trafficked in blatant anti-Black racism in rhetoric and policy for the last fifty years.
Now is not the time for a purity test for Joe Biden. Blacks in America may not survive another four years of a Trump presidency, a Barr Department of Justice, rampant voter suppression and disenfranchisement, the eroding and defunding of the now majority POC public educational system, ignorance regarding climate change and environmental issues that disproportionately affect Black people and their health, a cavalier attitude toward a virus disproportionately killing Black people, and blatant incompetence on domestic and international relationships.
Sometimes we go to battle with the army we have. It’s not an ideal scenario, but neither is this version of American democracy.