By J’na Jefferson
After seeming to finally discover just how important Black support truly is after the 2016 election, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates appear to finally be taking into account the overall importance of Black Americans, their needs, and concerns. However, just because they’re making attempts to appeal to the voting demographic doesn’t necessarily mean an authentic, lasting connection is being made.
Take the tenth Democratic debate, where seven Democratic hopefuls — with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, who did not qualify — took to the stage in Charleston, South Carolina to solidify their stances, point criticism at their opponents, and appeal to voters at home. Plenty of people were curious — and not a little apprehensive — to see how a group of white politicians would address issues that Black voters care about most, particularly in a state where the community makes up fifty-five percent of its Democratic electorate. And overall, the debate expounded on economic affairs and criminal justice, touching on the housing crisis, health care, and even the gun violence epidemic, which was introduced by moderator Gayle King with a nod to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a white supremacist killed nine Black people in 2015.
What ensued, however, was a mess of promises and pandering that just barely scratched the surface of those voters’ lived experiences. While some candidates seemed to be sincere in their pledges of support for Black citizens, it was difficult to treat other oaths as genuine, given the track records, personal statements, and murky relationships that preceded each candidate’s campaign. And as Tom Steyer pointed out, the idea of certain issues being “Black issues” do a disservice to the Black community — most issues matter to Black voters. Which begs the question: How do we distinguish between legitimate support and people-pleasing?
To be clear, some candidates are actively showing concern with issues plaguing Black communities, and aim to listen and learn more about what needs to be done. Steyer is forthright with his concerns regarding Black women’s reproductive rights, stating during the debate that he got into the race in order to fight for “economic, racial and climate justice.” He also has a history of funding Black movements and reportedly donated over $60,000 to Black community organizations throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren plans to reverse the infamously racist legacy of banking discrimination and made waves in 2015 for her comments regarding the importance of Black Lives Matter during a rally in Boston. Many transgender activists have rallied behind Warren for her call to protect Black trans women against a national epidemic of violence, and on Tuesday night, she critiqued the idea of being “race-neutral” in the United States: “We have got to address race consciously,” she said, doubling down on her pledge to fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
And as it’s been documented, Senator Bernie Sanders has been a staunch racial justice activist since the 1960s. As a now-viral photo of a college-aged Sanders shows, the politician led the first known sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest segregated housing. In his 2020 campaign promises, he addresses racial disparities in wealth and income, with an aim to dismantle discriminatory practices in various areas. His policies on criminal justice reform have also evolved: his current proposal aims to halve a national prison population that is disproportionately Black.
It's crucial that candidates — and frankly, politicians everywhere — put in the work to ensure that Black voices are heard, not just when cameras are recording. But across the debate stage, there is still work to be done. Former mayor Pete Buttigieg has regularly had to answer to the perceived lack of trust he generated with the Black citizens of South Bend, Indiana. Michael Bloomberg’s legacy as mayor of New York City is marred by stop-and-frisk, the policing tactic that targeted Black and Latinx youth at disproportionate rates and terrified generations of marginalized people. Amy Klobuchar, a former prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota, sentenced then-teenager Myon Burrell to life in prison in the early-2000s for a murder he may have not committed.
And in 1994, former Vice President Joe Biden sponsored a crime bill which enacted stricter federal prison sentences, provided funds to build more prisons, and supported grant programs encouraging officers to conduct more drug-related arrests. It had an outsized effect on Black and other minority people, and exacerbated the controversial “war on drugs.” A sign that he has changed? One of his 2020 policies pledges to “end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.”
Often, candidates are in such a hurry to make statements that appeal to a group of people that they fall short on what needs to happen in order for that pledge to take effect. Biden can promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court — which was “not a joke!,” he qualified at Tuesday’s debate — but that does little to account for the Senate’s confirmation of her, or that an existing Justice seat would have to be vacated for her appointment to happen. It’s also unclear what that representation would mean to Black Americans’ everyday lives in a meaningful way, the way Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan (named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass) broadly aims to “empower Black America” and reform broken systems.
As Klobuchar widely stated during the debate, keeping promises to the Black community is important. When we’re craving trustworthiness in a candidate who claims to be for and by the people, can we accept pledges and reformed ideas at face value? Is it enough to listen to someone say they’ll help or that they care, when there’s documentation that doesn’t necessarily show that they have? Every candidate says they will fight the issues facing Black citizens, but is it possible for those voters to fully trust the candidates who have a contemptuous history with the community, despite their current efforts to prove the opposite?
These questions matter, and their answers have ramifications that extend far beyond South Carolina. On Saturday (February 29), a significant number of Black voters will make their voices heard at the polls, and they will do so in a state marked by voter disenfranchisement and other pressing issues. And days later comes Super Tuesday, when 40 percent of the country votes, and a clearer picture of who could garner the Democratic nomination will be made.
The fact remains that Black Americans often don’t see or hear themselves in politics. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that the next president will more than likely be white. Buttigieg even acknowledged during the debate how blatantly the qualifying candidates lacked racial diversity, and how little they will ever know about what it means to live as anything other than white. That's not an earth-shattering acknowledgment, but it does underline the task at hand: To meaningfully earn the trust of Black voters, it’s their duty to truly listen and understand their experiences, and leverage their needs to build policies that help them thrive in the country.
It’s important to distinguish the differences in how the current candidates have tried (or failed) to help Black citizens in the past, in order to better shape our understanding of how they might advocate for the community in the future. Black Americans are yearning for their voices to be heard — and in a world where the internet seldom forgets, no candidate is above past transgressions. It’s ultimately up to the voter to determine the candidates talking a big game versus those actively trying to enact change. And it's crucial that we ask the difficult questions and have hard conversations, online and off, to wrestle with our individual feelings regarding accountability, forgiveness, and trustworthiness.