If you google “young Black voters not enthusiastic,” you’ll be hit with a steady drumbeat of news articles from the last few months that all say the same thing: Young Black voters, while definitely not fans of Donald Trump, are just not feeling it for Joe Biden.
The reason why was on display late in Tuesday night’s debate, when moderator Chris Wallace got on the topic of race. I was already prepared to be disappointed. Both candidates’ records are filled with wrong-side-of-history stances, racist remarks, and inconsistency in how they address Black voters at large.
But as a young Black man who's had men in my family impacted by mass incarceration, over-policing, and a broken criminal justice system, I wanted to see the difference between their positions. I can honestly say that it felt like the difference between wanting a very painful shot in the arm or in the ass. Both candidates offended me in some way in their responses; it was just a matter of how they framed it.
“You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them superpredators,” Donald Trump said after Joe Biden charged that Trump “has been disastrous for the African-American community.” “African-Americans are superpredators, and they've never forgotten it. They've never forgotten it.”
It’s not clear whether Trump was lying or just wrong, but no, Biden didn’t refer to Black people as “superpredators” during his push of the 1994 crime bill—that was the infamous description that came off the lips of then-first lady Hillary Clinton. However, Biden did use language that was similar.
During a 1993 speech on the Senate floor, Biden, who was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” He also doubled down a year later when advocating for the crime bill, a piece of legislation that many criminal justice scholars would later claim fueled the eventual mass incarceration crisis in America. Biden argued then that such “predators" must be cut off from the rest of society given that there was no other way to rehabilitate them. It was a passionate speech, one that was determined to incite fear in legislators to vote for the bill.
But Black people also never forgot that back in 1989, Trump placed a full page ad in The New York Times implying that the death penalty be considered after five Black teenagers were accused of raping and abusing a white woman. The young men, famously known as the Central Park Five, would eventually be exonerated years later. But Trump has never apologized for his decision to intervene in that case, instead saying in 2019 “You have people on both sides of that... they admitted their guilt.”
And yet, Biden never brought that incident up with Trump. Instead, he let Trump push him to reiterate that he wasn’t in support of Black Lives Matter’s call to defund the police. As Trump suggested that he ended racial sensitivity training within his administration “because it's racist,” Biden could have touted the fact that his name went on many pieces of civil-rights legislation over the course of his long career.
He could have spoken about the legislative impact that he’s helped advance to support the Black community. Or even talked about his close relationship with Barack Obama. But instead, he did nothing to steer the conversation away from emotional appeals that were more preachy than specific.
“It's a little bit like how this guy and his friends look down on so many people,” Biden said of Trump during the debate. “They look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics, like me, who grow up in Scranton. They look down on people who don't have money. They look down on people who are of a different faith. They looked down on people who are a different color. In fact, we're all Americans.”
This type of “all lives matter” approach to addressing the issue with Trump was underwhelming and off-base. Neither candidate outright said “Black lives matter,” and the insult-hurling and tone-deaf soliloquies didn’t make either one of them strong during this segment of the debate. Biden, who has a comfortable lead in the polls against Trump, is losing some momentum from Black male voters.
According to the Nationscape survey of likely voters in early September, Biden led Trump among Black men 76 percent to 17 percent. Surprisingly, this is an improvement for Trump, as he only got 14 percent of the Black male vote in 2016. It doesn’t help that Republicans are currently outspending Democrats on social media outlets like Facebook to appeal to Black voters. Some see Biden’s weakness in appealing to Black male voters as an “opening for Trump.”
While Black women are considered the backbone of the Democratic Party, Black men have noticeably been harder to court in the same fashion. One could easily argue that Biden’s record on the crime bill and previous racial gaffes have left a bad taste in some of their mouths. In battleground states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Black male voters are going to need to turn out in greater numbers than they did in 2016 in order to reach Biden’s goal of matching Obama’s voter turnout.
But that will require Biden to step up his game in the debates and within the campaign as well. He can’t keep avoiding his past mistakes, and he needs to be consistent and clarify his current stances. Bragging about all of the Black people he’s worked with over the years, including Obama, isn’t going to be enough to close that gap. Biden must recognize that with a long political history comes some decisions that have made a negative impact on Black people’s lives.
What I watched on Tuesday night was two old white men fighting while my brothers, uncles, cousins, mentors, and elders remain disproportionately impacted by a crippling pandemic, unemployment, racial discrimination, and police harassment. Trump has made it clear where he stands. Biden needs to stop taking his bait and establish a strong footing while he still can.