CHARLESTON, S.C. — Senator Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, and billionaire Tom Steyer didn’t end their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Black voters ended them.
In last Saturday’s first-in-the-South primary, Blacks in South Carolina did what many predicted for months — they voted overwhelmingly for former vice president Joe Biden. In a single day, they boosted his delegate count, revived his sagging campaign, and compelled both Buttigieg and Klobuchar not only to hit the brakes on their White House ambitions but also to endorse Biden before Super Tuesday.
Biden won with 64 percent of the Black vote, 50 points higher than his closest competitor, Senator Bernie Sanders. Even less surprising than his convincing first win was the scorn heaped on Black voters who made it possible.
“People won’t say it, but the truth is that many voters in SC are low information voters. Which is a nice way to put it,” tweeted a self-described “Bernieorbust” socialist. That’s been the general racist theme since the primary, with Biden’s success dismissed as a result of ill-informed Black voters blindly drifting toward a familiar name.
As usual, racism intentionally diminishes any understanding of the ways of Black folks.
It’s important to reiterate that Black people are no more monolithic in voting than they are in any other area of their lives. To be sure, every Democratic candidate has Black supporters. Yet Biden has two advantages. The most obvious one is the eight years he served alongside President Barack Obama. Especially among older Black voters, his history and friendship with the nation’s first Black president resonates.
And there is also this for Black voters: pragmatism.
That’s what I heard while I was in South Carolina for the primary. The men and women I spoke to were engaged and knowledgeable. They knew the issues, had watched most of the debates, and understood the policies that they found most appealing, from Medicare for All to loan forgiveness for college students mired in debt.
Not all planned to vote for Biden. Samuel, a jovial limo driver, was torn between Sanders and Klobuchar. Yet there was this familiar refrain. For many Black voters, there is no more important issue than defeating President Trump. As Jimmy, who drove me to the airport, succinctly put it: “If white people catch a cold, Black people catch pneumonia.” A Trump presidency that’s been disastrous for America has been catastrophic for Black people.
From spikes in hate crimes to Trump’s racism, Black communities have suffered mightily under this administration. Certainly, more progressive policies pitched by Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren would benefit Black people, yet there is also a sense that this nation has no real appetite to foster economic or racial equality espoused by candidates on the left.
“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, a jewelry maker who offered political analysis along with her deft recommendations for good barbecue joints in Charleston. “I don’t think white people generally vote in a way that will benefit them if it also benefits Black people.”
Think of all the white people covered by Obama’s Affordable Care Act who still voted for the man trying to dismantle it. And they’ll likely do it again.
Biden, Marsha believed, could move the country forward, but at a rate that wouldn’t make white people feel as if their privilege was being threatened. “They’re used to being the top rail,” Marsha said. “White people who say they’re progressive are usually more invested in keeping things exactly the way they are.”
I don’t believe Biden is the strongest candidate. He was not the person I voted for to rectify the unchecked injustices that paved the way for Trump. His record on racial issues is profoundly flawed. Yet I certainly understand, especially among older Black people (76 percent over 60 voted for Biden), those who see the former vice president as the best hope to reclaim the White House.
With so much at stake, many are unwilling to gamble in a nation that would rather talk about progressive policies than enact them. Black people waited through New Hampshire and Iowa to have their say in the first primary that looked more like America. And when they spoke with their votes, they declared that they understand white America better than it understands itself.