How Black Americans saved Biden and American democracy

REUTERS/Mark Makela - Voting machine operator Robin Coffee-Ruff hands a sticker to a voter who cast his ballot.

President-elect Joe Biden should hold a special virtual inauguration for the cities of Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit. These metro areas including their sprawling suburbs helped to mount political theater equivalent to the New England Patriots comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. This time, however, Atlanta’s mail-in ballots came back to win Georgia’s electoral votes for Biden similar to how Philadelphia did for Pennsylvania and Detroit did for Michigan.

Exit poll data from the 2020 election show the power of the Black vote. Black Americans represented over 50% of all Democratic voters in Georgia (33% of state population is Black), 20% of all Democratic voters in Michigan (14% of state population is Black), and 21% of all Democratic voters in Pennsylvania (12% of state population). These percentages are considering the critique of exit polls for failure to properly account for the various ways that diverse groups from Blacks to rural whites engage in the political process and respond to surveys. And, 2020 is not an anomaly. Black voters have long pulled their weight relative to other racial groups.

In most battleground states, a majority of Black Americans live in metro areas. In Pennsylvania, 65% of Black people live in Philadelphia and nearly 15% in Pittsburgh. Over 70% of Black people live in the Detroit area as well as the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area. In Arizona, nearly 85% live in Phoenix. In Georgia, 60% live in Atlanta and 35% in Augusta.

But, the sprawling suburbs in these areas also show the power of the Black vote. Considering Georgia went blue for the first time in 28 years, it is an ideal example. Using American Community Survey estimates, roughly the same percentage of Blacks and whites (44%) live in Fulton County, which is the county where Atlanta is located. However, the past decade has witnessed a decrease in the white population and an increase in the Black population in most counties that border Fulton.

In neighboring Cobb County, the Black population increased from 25% to 28% from 2010-2019, while the white population decreased from 62% to 56% (and only 51% if considering non-Hispanic whites). In Gwinnett County, the Black population increased from 24% to 28% from 2010-2019, while the white population decreased from 54% to 46%. Clayton County’s Black population increased from 66% to 70%, while the white population decreased from 20% to 17%. Even counties with smaller Black populations and larger white populations like Cherokee and Forsyth counties show a similar pattern. The small exception is DeKalb County (where I lived during elementary school). The county had stability in the Black population over the past decade (roughly 54%), while the white population slightly increased from 33% to 34% (29% for non-Hispanic whites).

Exit poll data further suggests that college-educated whites did not overwhelmingly vote for Biden in Georgia. In fact, less than 40% voted for Biden compared to 60% voting for Trump. Besides Alabama and South Carolina, this was the lowest percentage of college-educated whites voting for Biden in battleground states. Comparatively, over 50% of college-educated whites voted for Biden in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

While some political pundits and journalists attributed Georgia going Democrat to white suburbs, Black voters were the real key. Accordingly, it is important to compare the political context of the 2020 presidential election with that of 1992. Biden reported decided to run for president upon hearing Donald Trump’s failure to admonish white nationalists and white supremacists who held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 where they enacted violence and murdered Heather Heyer, a counter-protester and Black Lives Matter supporter.

We must juxtapose Biden’s electoral decision with former President Bill Clinton who launched his “tough on crime” campaign at Stone Mountain Correctional Facility with mostly incarcerated Black men standing behind him in single-file lines. Interestingly, Clinton’s speech helped galvanize Georgia voters to support him and helped the Arkansas-native to flip the state blue. His speech also helped galvanize the 1994 crime bill, which ironically was shepherded by Biden and blamed for contributing to mass incarceration. Though Biden is forming the most racially diverse cabinet in American history and has made clear through his actions and words that addressing systemic racism will be a focal point of his administration, it is clear that he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have considerable work to do on criminal justice reform.

But the role of Black Americans goes way beyond helping candidate Biden secure a presidential victory. With Trump’s divisive rhetoric, overt appeals to systemic racism, use of outright falsehoods and distortions, and attempt to overturn the 2020 election through extra-legal maneuvers, Blacks helped to save American democracy. They enabled Democrats to overcome the appeals of a GOP leader intent on subverting long-held democratic institutions and ushering in an era of authoritarian rule. A second Trump term likely would have featured more catastrophic attacks on the opposition, including delegitimizing civil society organizations and packing the judiciary with loyalists. Eight years of Trump rule would have destroyed American democracy and altered the future of the country and the world.

Growing up in the Atlanta-metro area, I know the legacy and current realities of voter suppression, police brutality, racial segregation, and white supremacy. I share a collective memory with other Blacks of electoral tactics that kept the Black vote down and prevented Stacey Abrams from becoming governor just two years ago. As a kid, I remember visiting Stone Mountain for Fourth of July and witnessing the most amazing laser light display that I have ever seen. As I got older, I realized that the light show was celebrating Confederate generals who aimed to keep my ancestors on plantations and in convict leasing shackles.

This is why the political mobilization of Stacey Abrams, civic organizations, and Black Lives Matter activists is so remarkable, both for the 2020 election and American democracy. It is clear rallying cries about systemic racism and a potentially better and more equitable America were heard loud and clear by many voters. According to a CNN exit poll, 36% of Democratic voters ranked racial inequality as their number one issue followed by coronavirus at 27%, two issues that deeply affect Black Americans. Conversely, only 3% of Republican voters ranked racial inequality as their top choice and only 5% ranked coronavirus.

Georgia Democratic Senate Candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, received the most votes in a crowded Senate race and will face Republican Kelly Loeffler on Jan. 5, 2021 in a runoff. The other Senate runoff will put Democrat Jon Ossoff against Republican David Perdue. Similar to the estimated 9 million people who watched the Verzuz battle between rappers Jeezy and Gucci Mane, all eyes will once again be on Georgia as the fate of the Senate likely will come down to the power of Black voters.