Reality Over Emotion and Passion! 5 Reasons Why Blacks Support Biden Over Bernie

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Elwood Watson, Ph.D.

Mar 25 · 8 min read

Key factors range from Barack Obama to Electoral College

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With the Democratic presidential primary race now down to two major candidates, some non-Black political observers are questioning why African Americans have mobilized behind Joe Biden rather than Bernie Sanders.

The overwhelming support of the Black community clearly propelled Biden to a huge victory in the South Carolina primary and other states on Super Tuesday. This string of victories lifted the Biden campaign from dormant to dominant among Democratic primary voters.

This has been the most compelling post-Super Tuesday narrative.

Biden indeed won key demographic groups such as suburban women, moderates and older voters across racial lines. Moreover, Biden was also able to successfully garner notable percentages of Black votes in Northern and mid-Western states, in addition to states the former vice president did not even win.

Five formidable factors explaining the propensity of Black voters to boost Biden over Bernie include (but are not limited to) the following:

  1. Barack Obama
  2. The Electoral College
  3. Pragmatism and Progressives
  4. White Suspicion
  5. Bernie and Electability.

1. Barack Obama

Biden’s close and cordial relationship with the nation’s first and only Black president is a leading reason why African Americans support the former vice president.

Serving as Barack Obama’s vice president for two terms provided many Black Americans an authentic familiarity with Joe Biden and showcased the unique Obama-Biden chemistry to govern effectively.

The Obama factor is particular strong for older voters who, regardless of race, are more likely to be tuned into politics.

In addition to warm personal and professional relations with President Obama, Biden was an effective and loyal vice president for eight years. Many Black voters know and appreciate this fact.

Biden firmly stood by Obama and fiercely defended him against nonstop vicious personal and political attacks from right-wing conservatives, many of which were based on race (either explicitly or implicitly).

As I write in my latest book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America:

  • “Right-wing talk radio [and other conservative media] has made blaming President Obama for race relations a cottage industry.”
  • “Race relations did not worsen under President Obama…America has always had a tortured racial past.”

Some political observers may ask why Obama hasn’t formally endorsed Biden yet? That’s a fair question.

I have no doubt that Obama will fully support and vigorously campaign for Biden at the appropriate time — as timing is strategically important to fully maximize momentum in presidential politics. Perhaps this won’t occur until the general election. Either way, it will happen.

Biden has already received key endorsements from leading Black figures in Congress, such as Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and others.

Why are leading African American lawmakers strongly backing Biden? Perhaps Congressman Clyburn said it best prior to the pivotal South Carolina primary which turned Biden’s campaign around:

“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.” — Rep. James Clyburn

Opinion | Why do black voters support Biden? Not because they’re moderates

The fulcrum of this year’s Democratic presidential nomination race likely took place this past weekend not in South…

2. Electoral College

Black voters know that while the popular vote is important, it’s the Electoral College that decides our presidents. Older Black voters are likely more aware of this than their younger counterparts who support Sanders, some of whom have yet to cast their first votes in a presidential election.

Black voters are also astute to the fact that the states most likely to provide the electoral votes needed to win must be competitive, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, etc.

The fast-approaching Michigan primary will tell a lot about how well Biden can compete and win over Blacks in a critical important swing state.

Some current polls shows Biden with a 15-point lead or more over Bernie, which may end up being on the low end.

Michigan can further solidify Biden’s status as the clear front runner for the nomination, but that doesn’t mean Bernie will quit the race prior to the Democratic National Convention in July — although Sanders will certainly be pressured to do so for the good of the party and its prospects for defeating Trump.

In 2016, the crucial mid-Western swing states ended up voting for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, even though blue states like Pennsylvania have historically been reliable for Democrats.

Black voters do not wish to see a similar scenario repeat itself in the 2020 electoral outcome.

3. Pragmatism and Progressives

Black voters are aware that even though young White voters tend to espouse progressive rhetoric, more often than not it’s just rhetoric — not reality.

Many young progressives are excited and enthusiastic to see candidates at public forums, meet with candidates on campus and the campaign trail, follow them on television, and engage with them on social media.

But there’s one big problem: young progressives are not always reliable when it comes to showing up at the ballot box.

While ideal in theory, some young progressives may refrain from the polls on Election Day for any number of generally trivial and self-centered reasons, such as inclement weather, long lines, or competing priorities at school or in their personal life.

Black voters are sagacious enough not to put too much faith in young progressives, especially when they support a radical left-wing candidate like Sanders, who will be persistently branded by Trump as a communist.

4. White Suspicion

Historically, Black voters have good reason to view the White voting public at large with a cautious and weary political eye.

Older black voters recall the horrendous violence that preceded passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, plus the periodic attempts to weaken and suppress Black voting rights (especially in the South).

We directly observed and recall the brazenly racist treatment of the nation’s first Black president by some White segments of society.

That’s why many Black Americans are rightly concerned the nation is once again going down a desolate path of open racial bigotry and hostility under President Trump. Despite Trump’s bogus claims of fake news, the fact is that facts don’t lie.

Blacks tend to distrust mainstream White voters not only due to America’s ugly history of slavery and racial discrimination, but also due to the rise of White supremacy and racial violence under Trump.

Four more years of Trump also means the most draconian conservative judicial appointment and more anti-environment legislation this nation has seen since the 1920s, which is understandably appalling and alarming for Blacks to witness.

Put simply, Blacks can’t afford to risk a second term of Trump. The brutal lessons of our racial history don’t fade easily…or ever.

This is due to Trump’s to his efforts to turn back the clock of civil rights, social justice, racial equality and equal justice under law — which would only increase in a second term based on his pattern of extreme bigotry.

Indeed, if there is any group that knows American history, in particular White American history, it is Black America. That’s because legalized discrimination, for lack of a better term, was intentionally weaponized by a White racist power structure to oppress Blacks and suppress our voting rights.

This widespread and blatant racism took the form of brutal physical, social, economic and psychological forces from which many generations of Black America have yet to recover.

Opinion | Why Southern Democrats Saved Biden

For those who live in the shadow of segregation and racial terror, the election is not about policy or personality…

5. Bernie and Electability

Picking up on the prior point, many Blacks generally view a far left wing self-declared Democratic Socialist, like Bernie Sanders, as too risky — especially considering Trump already has publicly stated he will brand Bernie as a closet communist (which is not reason enough in-and-of-itself to disqualify Sanders but needs to be factored into the larger picture of what Democrats will face).

Such a harsh allegation, even if unproven, does not bode will for Bernie. He has already committed a big political gaffe by speaking favorably of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in a nationally televised interview.

Plus, Bernie purposely skipped the historic anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, and then added insult to injury for Blacks by canceling a scheduled campaign visit to Jackson, Mississippi, this past Friday.

Surrogates for the Sanders campaign have implied in national media interviews that Blacks are “low information voters” — a highly offensive racial smear that we would expect from conservative Republicans.

This is a not so nice way of patronizing African Americans by openly inferring they don’t know what’s good for them or have enough relevant information to make an intelligent decision.

Bernie has failed to effectively reach out to, and meaningfully connect with, the Black community since he last ran for president in 2016. Has Bernie learned nothing from the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who appeared to take the Black vote for granted?

While some Blacks would like to embrace the progressive vision of Bernie Sanders, they are far too skeptical.

An unflinching concern remains within Black America that too many Whites will always be more interested in their own well-being (and even that of other lower income Whites) at the expense of Blacks.

Upscale liberal Whites may like the idea of integration and progressive policies in theory, but less so in practice.

Final Thoughts

Despite the strong showing of support for Joe Biden by African Americans thus far, it’s important to recognize that Black voters are not monolithic.

To the contrary, like any other racial or ethnic group, we are diverse in our social mores and customs. Yes, there are certain commonalities that are specific to the Black experience in America. However, this fact is true for every other group of Americans, not just people of African descent.

What is commonplace among Black Americans compared to other groups is centuries of deeply entrenched and systematic institutional racism.

Are Blacks the only group of Americans to face egregious racism?

The answer is no, of course not. Nevertheless, it must be noted that every other racial, ethnic or religious group that has arrived on America’s shores has come here with a certain degree of voluntarism.

While non-Blacks may have fled dangerous conditions, sought political asylum, or simply yearned for a better life, they still decided to voyage to America with all its uncertainties — and Ellis Island was waiting for them with open arms.

This was certainly not the case for Black Americans due to entrenched slavery and systematic discrimination, ranging from Jim Crow laws to oppressive sharecropping systems (which in many cases forbade Southern Black citizens from voting).

There is no doubt that such a politically, socially and culturally racist history in America has left a deeply ingrained imprint on the voting patterns of Black citizens, both past and present.

This is not to say the Black community views Joe Biden as a utopian figure.

Indeed, Biden’s record on racial issues is deeply problematic in some senses. But, flaws aside, many older Black voters — and mainstream older voters across racial groups — view the former vice president as the best option for Democrats to reclaim the White House.

The stakes in the next presidential election for Americans in general, and African Americans in particular, are simply too high for wishful thinking.

Sorry Bernie Bros.


Elwood Watson is the author of Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press) which is available in paperback and Kindle via major book retailers everywhere.

Written by

Historian, public speaker, social-cultural critic. Professor of African American and Gender Studies, Post-WWII U.S. History, at East Tennessee State University.

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