Former United States Vice President and Democratic nomination hopeful Joe Biden greets his supporters after speaking at Wofford College and campaigning on the eve of the 2020 South Carolina Primary in Spartanburg. (Jeremy Hogan / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Why black voters broke for Biden: The "white working class" isn't the center of the universe

Don't treat black voters as a monolith: Their decision was reasonable — but will it lead to victory or doom?


Chauncey DeVega
March 13, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

Since Donald Trump's presidential campaign began in 2015, there have been hundreds if not thousands of stories written about the "white working class" voters in red-state and Rust Belt America. These stories constitute a subgenre of reporting and writing we might call the Tales of TrumpLandia.

This subgenre of writing has its own set of rules: an intrepid reporter from Blue State America journeys out into the hinterlands of Trump country and then learns deep wisdom from white Trump voters at diners, bowling alleys, churches, country fairs and flea markets — up in the mountains, down on the farms and in their modest but tidy homes. The intrepid reporter is made wiser about the good people of real America, and why so many of them support an incompetent, corrupt, racist, misogynist, ignorant authoritarian.

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The Tales of TrumpLandia were spawned by a mainstream American news media which was somehow "blindsided" by Trump's win in 2016 and how a small number of angry white voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio gifted him the White House. The pundit class was shocked by the outcome. In turn, this created an obsession that such a state of surprise and embarrassment would never ever happen again.

The Tales of TrumpLandia" are a form of tautology or circular reasoning, in which white working-class voters are somehow the most important group in America because the news media says so — which in turn justifies all the time and energy spent reporting on them.

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In reality, the white people of TrumpLandia, working class or otherwise, are not the real center of the American political universe. This will only become truer as the country becomes even more urban, more racially and ethnically diverse, and cosmopolitan. Generational replacement will also diminish the power of white rural Trump voters. There are strong institutional and personal incentives within the news industry, however, to continue to focus a disproportionate amount of energy on the Tales of TrumpLandia.

Several months ago, media scholar and critic Eric Boehlert explained this dynamic to me in an interview for Salon:

In the mainstream news media, people understand how the game is played. If you work for the New York Times and you see that editors literally cannot publish enough stories about white Trump rural voters in Ohio, guess what stories you're going to pitch. A reporter would say, "Send me to Ohio! I want to interview these people." It will end up on page one even though the Times just had one of those stories on page one three weeks ago.

People are smart and savvy that way. They understand the culture of the newsroom. People know which way the wind is blowing. So that's how a lot of these collective news decisions get made ….

Since impeachment has been on the radar, I do not think that the New York Times has interviewed a voter of color. I've read so many pieces and they're always about how impeachment might be a problem for Democrats because that's the dominant media narrative. One of the dangerous things about Trump is this assumption that white voters, especially white middle-aged voters, are the most important part of the public.

If you look at the demographics, it's just not true. Let's send someone to the rural Ohio diner, but let's not just interview white middle-aged men. Let's interview Democrats. Let's find out if impeachment is igniting grassroots fire around the country for Democrats.

But this obsession with TrumpLandia has created a form of myopia in which other Americans and their stories are routinely ignored by the mainstream news media. In turn, this leads to the mainstream news media being "surprised" again by political and social events that in many ways are so predictable.

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The events of Super Tuesday, and the way black voters (and other parts of the Democratic Party's base) salvaged Joe Biden's stumbling presidential campaign — and likely ended that of Bernie Sanders — is one such example.

On Super Tuesday, 61 percent of black voters in North Carolina voted for Joe Biden, while only 17 percent voted for over Sanders. Virginia showed nearly identical results, with 63 percent of black voters supporting Biden and only 18 percent backing Sanders.

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That pattern would continue, if not quite as dramatically. This past week, black voters in Michigan and Missouri overwhelmingly favored Biden again, nearly matching the support from black voters in those states for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of course black people are not uniform or monolithic; younger African-Americans were more likely to support Sanders, a pattern found in other racial and ethnic groups as well.

Adding context to the macro-level data, there are also personal stories This is from Terrell Jermaine Starr's interviews with black female voters for the Root:

"Was it time for Hillary?," I asked.

"I think it was," Randle said. "I mean, she won. She won the popular vote. I think the momentum is different. There is a shift in the climate. Back then, it was 'Hillary can win. Hillary can win.' And I think, just right now, they're not gonna vote a woman in there. They're not just gonna do that."

"Who are the they?," I asked.

"The majority of people," she responded.

"White people?," I asked.

She looked at me and nodded her head, "Yeah. Thank you."

And this, by columnist Mara Gay for the New York Times:

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For those who lived through the trauma of racial terrorism and segregation, or grew up in its long shadow, this history haunts the campaign trail. And Mr. Trump has summoned old ghosts.

"People are prideful of being racist again," said Bobby Caradine, 47, who is black and has lived in Memphis all his life. "It's right back out in the open."

In Tennessee and Alabama, in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Mississippi, Democrats, black and white, told me they were united by a single, urgent goal: defeating Mr. Trump this November, with any candidate, and at any cost.

"There's three things I want to happen," Angela Watson, a 60-year-old black Democrat from Oklahoma City, told me at a campaign event there this week. "One, beat Trump. Two, beat Trump. And three, beat Trump."

They were deeply skeptical that a democratic socialist like Mr. Sanders could unseat Mr. Trump. They liked Ms. Warren, but, burned by Hillary Clinton's loss, were worried that too many of their fellow Americans wouldn't vote for a woman.

This is from Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham:

"I like [Warren and Sanders], but I don't see them winning, because I think they're too progressive for a lot of white people in his country," said Marsha…"I don't think white people generally vote in a way that will benefit them if it also benefits Black people."

As political scientists Michael Dawson, Cathy Cohen and others have repeatedly demonstrated, these profiles reveal a deep sophistication in the political decision-making of black voters.

These interviews also highlight how black Americans reconcile their lived experiences as both individuals and part of a broader community with the realities of white supremacy and the dire threat it represents both historically in America and now in the Age of Trump.

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Black voters' deep suspicion of white Americans' capacity to follow through on efforts to improve the United States on both sides of the color line shows both common sense and an understanding of a long history: White people in America have consistently chosen racism and white privilege over shared class struggle for mutual benefit alongside people of color.  

These profiles of black voters and their political decision-making signals to other possibilities as well outside of the tired Tales of TrumpLandia template.

For example, the mainstream news media should be writing about non-voters and others who choose not to participate in American civic life, and about what their choice reveals about the health of the country's democracy. Beyond an emphasis on white voters more generally, there are many stories to be written about black and brown Americans and others who are living through and resisting the Age of Trump and the racial authoritarianism and terror it has empowered.

Young people have political lives. They will inherit the poor decisions made by adults about the economy, the environment, technology, politics and society more generally.

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Poor and working-class people, especially women, on both sides of the color line are routinely ignored or misrepresented because "working class" remains code for being white and male in American public discourse.

White right-wing Christians are also the subject of obsessive coverage by the mainstream American news media while liberal and progressive Christians (such as Dr. Larycia Hawkins, featured in the new documentary "Same God") who oppose the cruelty of Donald Trump and the Republican Party receive little if any attention.

And what of those Democrats, liberals and progressives who live behind enemy lines in TrumpLandia? There has been scant reporting and writing about them as well. David Block of the Washington Monthly reflects on this erasure, reporting from rural Virginia:

Reporters have descended on conservative bastions like Augusta, as well as counties that recently flipped from blue to red, in a bid to understand how a reality television star became president. They have spoken to longtime, working-class conservatives and ex-Democrats who, through Trump, finally found a vehicle through which to express their political frustrations. In doing so, they've routinely painted a picture of Trump-voting America so predictable that it has become a trope. Yet very few journalists have chosen to focus on the Democrats in Trump country who stayed Democrats….

But even in places like Augusta County, thousands of people voted for Hillary Clinton. No depiction of Trump country is complete without them. Most of their neighbors may be standing by the president, but if Augusta is any indication, Democrats in rural red counties are just as fired up and enthused as their counterparts in liberal cities.

Ultimately, the Tales of TrumpLandia are stories of the failure of the Fourth Estate and its abdication of the responsibility to educate and inform the public so that they can make good decisions as citizens of a democracy, and in so doing hold the powerful accountable for their actions.

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Contrary to what some online and elsewhere have asserted, black voters who supported Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders are not ignorant, stupid or misinformed. They were not hoodwinked or somehow bamboozled by Biden and the mainstream media. Individual black voters who support Joe Biden made a calculation about the relationship between their own individual priorities and needs and those of black Americans and the United States as a whole. The sum product of the calculation was that Donald Trump must be removed from office at all costs. Although black Americans have consistently supported progressive politicians and causes, in this instance and for many valid and comprehensible reasons, black voters chose Biden as the likeliest way to survive the Age of Trump.

But in discussing the political decision-making of black voters, one must remember that they are not a hive mind like the Borg in "Star Trek." Writing at The Nation, Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa, a Bernie Sanders supporter, explains:

It is okay to label miscalculations for what they are. Making miscalculations is a thing that humans do. The black people who voted in the 2016 primary election, myself included, put their weight behind Hillary Clinton, and she still lost in the general. To tie all of black people's choices to their trauma — or give a pass to the belief that black voters are omniscient — is to minimize their agency and their intentionality. But blaming older black voters for singlehandedly ushering in an establishment candidate, as some have been quick to do, also takes responsibility away from the outside actors who play a part in swaying folks' political opinions.

Black people's reasons for supporting Biden are diverse, not singular. Whether folks would rather live with the devil they know, are party loyalists, or inherited their preferences (as I did in the past), it's personal, and people are entitled to their choice. I also know that my support for Sanders is not an anomaly. Black activists groups including the Dream Defenders and the DSA Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus show that I am not the only one who supports his platform — that we won't be cast off to what one MSNBC contributor called the island of misfit black girls.

Moreover, as Princeton professor and MSNBC contributor Eddie Glaude Jr. shared with me during a recent conversation, one can marvel at the irony of black Americans supporting Joe Biden — and by implication the "centrist" neoliberal policies that have caused the black community so much harm in recent decades — without denigrating black people or black voters as a group.

On Super Tuesday and the primaries that followed, black Americans lifted Joe Biden on their shoulders and propelled him forward toward the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Time magazine's David French summarizes Biden's apparent victory over of Sanders with this formula: "The energy of the progressive activists simply can't overcome the sheer numbers of the suburban and African-American voters who are demonstrably more moderate than the disproportionately white progressive base."

But there remain reasons for deep worry and lingering concern. Black voters and others who support Joe Biden may be like people on a sailing ship in a bygone era who are perilously battered by a storm. The captain of the ship sees daylight and navigates towards what he believes is safe passage. There was another option: He could have used the storm to drive the ship forward and by doing so arrived much closer to the ultimate destination. By choosing apparent daylight, he ended up steering the ship into the doldrums, and so the journey ended not in safety but in tragedy. Only time will tell which course Democrats have chosen.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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