Tiffany Cross on why Biden needs a Black woman: If he thinks he's "Joebama," he's wrong

Newsroom veteran and author argues that Biden's best bet for a November blowout is to get Black women excited

Published July 30, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Tiffany D. Cross of The Beat DC speaks on stage during Texas Conference For Women 2019 at Austin Convention Center on October 24, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women 2019)
Tiffany D. Cross of The Beat DC speaks on stage during Texas Conference For Women 2019 at Austin Convention Center on October 24, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women 2019)

Joe Biden has promised to announce his vice presidential running mate in August, perhaps as soon as next week. Tiffany Cross is pushing for him to choose a Black woman, saying that she's tired of Black voters being afraid to make demands because they fear another term of Donald Trump.

"When you sit at the epicenter of political power, if you don't use that power now, then when will you use it?" Cross asked me recently on "Salon Talks" while discussing her new book "Say It Louder! Black Voters, White Narratives & Saving Our Democracy." For Cross, a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, Biden's VP pick is less about how Black someone is and more about "how Black are her policies?" From Kamala Harris to Susan Rice to Stacey Abrams — Black women who appear to be in the mix — Cross is zeroing in on "who could do the job on day one."

In her book, Cross further explains how Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party and why they should demand more from Democratic leaders to address the community's needs. "A lot of people think Donald Trump is the first white supremacist to occupy the White House. That's simply not true. Do you know how many devils Black women had to vote for again and again and again? We assess, this person will cause the least harm to the community relative to this other person," Cross said.

Cross also calls out the news media, where she has worked behind the scenes as a producer, for not embracing Black voices. She notes that when the media fuels baseless, negative stereotypes of a community, that can lead to government policies based on that caricature, from policing to allocation of resources. The media has the power to define minority communities in a good, bad or ugly way. Having voices from those communities in all levels of the process increases the likelihood that Americans will see a more accurate depiction.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Cross here, or read a transcript of our conversation below to hear more about how Biden can better address the Black community during the 2020 presidential campaign and beyond and how Cross' experiences in newsrooms have pushed her to disrupt the power structure and challenge unchecked privilege.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How can the Democratic Party be more responsive to the Black community?

Very few people are talking to Black men as voters and that has got to change. The Democratic Party is so interested in securing and speaking to people who left them a long time ago. The Democratic Party has not won the majority of white votes since 1964 with Lyndon Johnson. In 1976, the American voting electorate was 89 percent white. Things have changed drastically since then. And so now, during the Democratic primary process, you saw a lot of candidates come out and say, "Hey, I'm the only candidate who can win back Trump voters. I'm the only candidate who can win red states."

And you want to say, hey, you're running as a Democrat. Talk to me about how you can win some blue states. Talk to me about how you can win over people who look like me. Talk to me how you can win over the dudes on the block instead of how you can win over MAGA cult-like followers. They aren't the ones who elected you. They aren't the ones who uphold this party.

The media is guilty of this too — centering people who are not interested. It's like going out to an ex-girlfriend who left you a long time ago, she's moved on. So we're attempting to attract that voter and it doesn't happen. It's not proven fruitful for any of them. When you see candidates walk the middle of the road, because they're afraid to scare the MAGA voter and they're afraid to make appeals and inroads to communities of color. Walking in the middle of the road is how you become roadkill, because the streets are talking and they are not interested in polite, political epithets or people giving these canned speeches. They are demanding difference.

For a lot of people, Obama's historic presidency was the floor, not the ceiling. And so now they say, "Yeah, Obama did all this and we're ready to take that and take it to the next level." As long as you have politicians and a party running a playbook from yesteryear, they'll keep getting their answers handed to them because people are just not here for that anymore. And I stand with the streets who are out here and demanding — not asking, but demanding that a government serves them. If government is supposed to be by the people and for the people, when does that government start to include us? When does "for the people" include us? And I'm just thrilled that we're in this moment of a cultural shift that I hope is accompanied by a power shift where our voices can be heard and help to make and shape policy.

Clearly Donald Trump is trying to alienate every Black person not named Diamond and Silk and Ben Carson. Trump's going to get maybe 5 to 8 percent, the typical teeny numbers of Black supporters. You co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about Joe Biden having a Black VP, arguing that should there be a Black VP on this ticket, it's going to be a woman. Why is that so important?

It's not necessarily a question of how Black are you, but how Black are your policies? We want someone who can adopt an agenda that comprehensively addresses issues that impact the Black community. And I think there is an embarrassment of riches of Black women who are able to accomplish that. Look, Julián Castro had a very impressive, comprehensive agenda when he ran for president. Unfortunately, he did not get a lot of attention in the media. Elizabeth Warren, she had a beautiful policy proposal that directly addressed issues in the Black community. I'd be a bit concerned about having two white candidates over the age of 70 on this ticket. It may be challenged, but I don't know that I would consider her a loss.

I think the important thing is when you have capable Black women who are able to inspire a voting electorate and able to go into these communities with a sense of familiarity, it would strike some of us as wrong to leapfrog over such candidates. I completely understand a lot of Black people saying, "Wait, don't ask for too much. We have a white supremacist in the White House. We just have to get rid of him."

But when you sit at the epicenter of political power, if you don't use that power now, then when will you use it? And I think because Black voters, again, have been so historically brutalized, people have fear in making these demands. They're saying, "We are afraid of making these demands because we don't want to risk having another term of Donald Trump." I understand that fear, but I would have to respond to that and say, "I have to move without fear. Before I just lay down and die, I will fight to the death and to do that, I need a large army of people." And for me, that would take someone who looks like me running on this ticket. That would make my job easier and help ushering this man over the finish line from November.

Are there one or two candidates that you like for potential VP?

It's not so much who I like the most, but who I think could be the most impactful. Somebody who could do the job on Day One. And I think again, he has an embarrassment of riches. Sen. Kamala Harris has run a national campaign. She's been vetted on the national stage. She's taken a punch, she's thrown a punch. I think she wouldn't be a bad choice. Man, I think there are people who could be excited by her. Stacey Abrams would have been a great choice. I'm not sure that she's being vetted, but she's proven that she can turn out the votes. She's helped to turn Georgia purple, practically. I think she would have been a great choice. Susan Rice has an impressive résumé of foreign policy experience. I'm not sure how many people would be excited. Can she show up to a podium and excite people and get millions of people enthusiastic about casting ballots? I don't know, but certainly there are multiple people that he is considering that are more than capable.

If Joe Biden does not pick someone who's Black, is there a chance it crushes the turnout? Or is the opposition to Donald Trump so great that we're still going to come out, and it doesn't really matter?

I think it would be a mistake to look at this race like it's a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. This is the choice between Joe Biden and staying home. I'm not encouraging that. I'm certainly going to cast my ballot, but I think there are people who feel that way. There are people who feel like, "I've been voting for a long time. My life has never changed. I've seen other people vote. The system has never really changed for me. So I don't know that I can take this election seriously." I hope people have certainly learned how federal policy and local policy impacts their lives.

Yes, there are some people who are excited about Joe Biden, but for a lot of people a vote for Joe Biden isn't necessarily for him. It's a vote against Trump. I think to make this a decisive victory, because that's what it's going to take to unseat a white supremacist from the highest office of the land, you want to organize and excite as many people as you can. So why not give the people what they're asking for? Why not make an exciting ticket? Because if Joe Biden thinks he is Joebama, he simply isn't.

I mean, we have to be realistic that the idea of a 2008 Joe Biden is one thing, but the reality of a 2020 Joe Biden is another. And he quite frankly, does need someone who can bring some energy onto the ticket. He brings humanity. He brings sense. It's nothing against Joe Biden in any way and I don't want that to be misconstrued, but for people who kind of grew up with him and he's nothing new, I think they want something that they can be excited about, quite frankly.

For people who don't know you, you've got a really interesting story. You came through a lot of challenges. I love the quote you have in your book by Henry van Dyke, and I'm paraphrasing, "Some succeed because they are destined to, others succeed because they are determined to." Why were you so determined to want to be in the media?

I'll tell you, Dean, when I started I wanted to be the brown Murphy Brown. When I was in high school, she was like all the rage. And you remember that she got into that big tête-à-tête with Vice President Dan Quayle at the time. I didn't really see a direct path. I saw people like Oprah and I knew I wanted to be in this field, but I didn't really know how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. Every time life knocked me down, I just picked myself up and dusted myself off and I got back to it again. And I still feel that way, honestly, because when you look at the Black experience historically, I come from a lineage of people and that's what we've always had to do, figure it out and find a way or make one.

It was very important to me that I would not let life define my circumstances and keep going. That's something that I really want younger people to understand as well, because none of us have an easy path. Despite what people around you tell you, despite what your circumstances dictate, we really have to harness our own spirit and let that be the driving force. I had a lot of angels in my life help me along the way, for sure.

On some level it seems like you accepted the fact that there's going to be struggle and it's not going to be easy and it inspired you to work harder and not be dissuaded by a challenge.

Don't get me wrong, it was frustrating, Dean. I've navigated newsrooms for 20 years. I've won awards. I've been a producer and an executive producer. I've run a D.C. bureau. I landed a fellowship at Harvard. I taught journalism. If I were a white woman in this space, my career in television news would look vastly different. It is frustrating sometimes to see people who don't have my intellectual curiosity, who are not the best interviewers, people who ride their last names into fame and are gifted these platforms, are allowed to act the plum fool on TV and throw temper tantrums on TV. And they're elevated and celebrated by mostly white media executives.

Sure, that is frustrating, but I've had to focus on achieving what I could in the lane that I created for myself. And there has been a modicum of success, and I'm certainly not done. I anticipate doing a lot more in life. But I mean, we do have to disrupt the power structure that allows for that level of privilege to go unchecked and celebrate it while you have people like myself and many others who drive ratings, who raise relevant points, who change the national conversation. And we have rarely gotten even a paycheck, let alone a thank you for doing such.

In your book, "Say it Louder!" you talk about media and you talk about representation. Sometimes it gets lost even to our white liberal allies, who might say, "OK, even if you're not in the newsroom, I'm a white progressive, I'm going to stand up for your community." But you make the point that the lived experience that you bring is important. While we love the white allies, we need to be there. It actually matters what people see on the screen.

The media has a direct impact on democracy. When you look at voter suppression, for example, Black people have been dealing with voter suppression for almost a century. You see videos of people standing in long lines in the rain, that's nothing new for Black people in Black neighborhoods. Polling sites are closed routinely. Thousands of voters are purged from the polls routinely. It didn't become a story. And so white people were impacted, and Donald Trump started threatening going after mail-in ballots, which he himself uses, which a lot of other people outside the Black community use. And then all of a sudden it was like, "Wait a second. This sounds like voter suppression!" How that must feel to those of us who've been battling and enduring that for a long time.

And then there are just these awful takes that are just painfully wrong. So even though someone may consider themselves an ally, it matters to actually have a seat at the table. So not just diverse faces and voices in front of the camera, but diverse faces and voices at the executive level, in the C-suites, people with editorial decision-making power who can help drive the conversation. I talked to you a bit offline about the Kanye West thing. He was going to run for president and there's the awful takes that people had on that. They actually thought that Kanye would split the Black vote. They don't know that Black people canceled Kanye a long time ago.

But that's just an example of someone thinking, "Oh, we should do this story on Kanye," because that represents diversity to them. Where if you have a Black person at the table, they could say, "Let me just tell you, nobody's taking that seriously, and that's probably not the best take." Or the take that people had in 2016 that, "Oh, well, Black folks just didn't show up because Hillary can never rebuild that Obama coalition. And now we have Trump." Well, that's not true. If we're going to say that, we have to talk about GOP-led voter suppression. We have to talk about foreign election interference that specifically targeted Black voters. And we have to talk about the Black people who did in fact show up.

I write about this in my book, there were 75,000 people who voted for president in Detroit, whose votes were not counted. They simply had their votes thrown out. So Hillary lost that state. Had she carried those 75,000 voters, she would have carried the state. But you did not hear about that in breaking news. If 75,000 people had their data stolen from Target or Equifax, if 75,000 people missed a flight, it would be breaking news for days. But because these voters came out of Detroit, a predominantly Black city, it simply got swept away and we didn't hear about it because the media landscape was too busy chasing the latest tweet or asinine comment from this president.

That's a great point. It's not just about who you see on TV and saying, "Oh, it's nice to see different faces," it actually has an impact on cultural norms, the way people see our various communities and then the way people talk about our communities. During the campaign, Donald Trump painted the entire Black community every time as if everyone who was Black lived in a ghetto somewhere in the 1960s. In your book, you talk about how Black women are the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party. And we hear that a lot. I'd love you to explain why. Ninety-five percent literally voted for Hillary Clinton.

It is not that Black women are altruistic or that Black woman are so wedded to the Democratic Party, but Black women vote in the greater interest of the greater good. And so when Black women organize, they don't just organize themselves, they organize community and have had to be pragmatic. Black women are the No. 1 business owners relative to any other community of color. Black women join the armed forces significantly more, relative to any other community. We represent over a third of all armed forces in this country. So we have multiple tentacles scratching into many different areas. When we assess the landscape where we are not reflected, we have to make pragmatic choices.

A lot of people think Donald Trump is the first white supremacist to occupy the White House. That's simply not true. Do you know how many devils Black women had to vote for again and again and again? We assess, "This person will cause the least harm to the community, relative to this other person." And the battle we've waged and won, political and social battles seemingly on our own, it's not just for a president, it's not just the Democratic Party. It was Black women who kept an accused pedophile from roaming the halls of the Senate. When you look at the special election in Alabama and Roy Moore, we put Doug Jones in that office and in the process helped elect nine Black women to the federal court in Alabama.

It was Black women who overwhelmingly supported the candidacy of Stacey Abrams, but in Georgia white women outpaced even white men with their support for Brian Kemp, a well-documented suppressor of votes and an anti-choice advocate. And so the sweeping policy that impacts everybody, I think Black women have a unique ability to multitask and look at what makes the most sense and work hard to make that happen, because we are voting to save our sons, our daughters. We're taking care of our parents, we're worried about our siblings. The weight and the load that we bear in this process is that we have faith in a system that has denied us, but we have to become a part of it in order to disrupt it.                                                                                       

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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