Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, and many Black men are tired of the comparisons.
After four years of racist rhetoric, Donald Trump is now 57 percentage points down with Black voters, according to FiveThirtyEight—which is bad, yes, but is a 15-point improvement from where he ended up in 2016.
Why would Black men, who are often the target of unarmed police shootings, unemployment, and systemic inequality in America, back a president who is a racist and who wants more racist so-called law-and-order policies? To try and answer that question, I went to the epicenter of Black male refuge: a mainstay West Philadelphia barbershop on a busy Saturday.
When Black turnout in Philadelphia declined in 2016 without Barack Obama on the ticket, it helped Trump edge past Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania—and the Biden campaign has been giving the city a lot of attention to keep that history from repeating itself. But that’s been hard to do with the coronavirus and a summer of protests. And, the men in the shop said, Biden and his party haven’t been helping themselves by taking Black voters, and Black men in particular, for granted.
“I can’t keep giving these Democrats my vote, what have I gotten?” a middle-aged accountant said. “I’m leaning toward Trump because we need to let them know that our votes can’t be taken for granted.”
This was one of the few Black male Trump supporters I’ve come across in Philly, a man I’ve seen at the shop for years and not one who’d ever come across like the extreme conservative Trump supporters—Candace Owens, Diamond and Silk, or Rob Smith—most often represented in the press.
Several men agreed with his sentiment, but disagreed that voting for Trump was the solution. Instead, they were apathetic or hostile to voting at all. They hate how the Biden campaign has spoken to them. The consensus was that the campaign seems to only appeal to “suit-and-tie negroes with Ivy League degrees,” as one man put it. Another older man, a union member, then called me out as a late-twenties graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, saying “they’re trying to get votes from young bucks like you.”
I’d felt that when Barack Obama made a rare visit to the campaign trail last week, as the Biden campaign held a private Black male voter gathering in North Philly limited to 20 participants. I was a part of the press pool for that event and was excited to see Obama engage with this often neglected voter base but was quite disappointed when I realized that most of the guests invited were elected officials, ward leaders, and campaign surrogates who I’d already seen on the campaign trail. This felt like a missed opportunity given that the real undecided Black male voters were outside of that rec center waiting to get just a glimpse of the man.
“They only seem interested in the Black women in our community and not the rest of us,” a millennial who just graduated from law school complained. “I’m voting for Biden because my wife will kill me if I don’t. But damn, do they even see us?”
There was an echo of resentment about the rise of Black women within the Democratic Party. Most of the men weren’t fans of Kamala Harris, and several questioned her Blackness (yes, someone mentioned her marriage to a white man and how she named the very deceased Tupac as her favorite rapper alive.) Older and younger men dissected Harris’s controversial criminal justice background, with several seeming to feel that her ascension was somehow a threat to them.
“If more women like Kamala get in the White House, they will never value the Black man,” a neighborhood youth coach shouted out. “They want women like her to lock us up and keep us down.”
Some of the men in the room did question elements of the misogynoir and veiled sexism that was being conveyed during this conversation but a common theme in the discussion was the level of contempt they had for Harris being a heartbeat away from the presidency and a feeling of neglect from the Democratic Party on addressing Black male issues specifically. This sentiment seemed to align with a rise of Black men, specifically in hip-hop, noting how they feel more engaged with the Trump campaign than Biden’s. Ice Cube’s infamous platinum plan came up, and many of the men said the rapper turned movie maker had messed up the optics but didn’t deserve the harsh criticism he’d come in for.
“Woke folks on social media don’t understand how politics works,” a retired SEPTA bus driver argued. “Cube should have had more people involved, but I don’t fault him for at least talking to Trump about it. Democrats are always trying to make us beg for something; we gotta want more for our damn ourselves.”
That sentiment matches with the tone-deaf remarks Jared Kushner made on Monday about how Black people must “want to be successful” in order for the president’s policies to help them. “One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the Black community, which is mostly Democrat, is that President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about,” the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser said on Fox & Friends. “But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”
In the barbershop that weekend, Trump’s campaign messaging about being rugged, outspoken, and self-made seemed enticing to many of the men gathered there in a conversation where the comparisons between Trump and Biden could fairly be categorized as old-school “locker room talk.”
There were Black men there who related to Trump, an old white guy, because they, too, have aspirations of wealth and hate political correctness. And with the alternative to Trump being another old white man who they believe is responsible for mass incarceration, they don’t seem to see much difference between the candidates.
It’s awfully late for Biden to improve his campaign message now but if he is our next president, he needs to immediately work to fix this, and to get past the idea—which he’s played into several times on the campaign trail—that Black men are taken for granted by the Democratic party, no matter how suspicious they may be of it. While Trump is clearly not anything better, to say the least, the fact that some Black male voters can’t distinguish between the two of them seems like a real failure of the Biden campaign and an ominous sign about how a Biden presidency could go.