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Do Joe Biden’s “you ain’t black” comments ultimately matter?

Author and professor Chryl Laird on whether the presumptive Democratic nominee is taking black voters for granted.

Joe Biden greets supporters at his primary election night event in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 29, 2020. He received nearly two-thirds of the black vote in the state’s primary.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to the political gaffe. And on Friday, he stepped in it once again.

After putting it off for months, Biden finally sat down for an interview on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio show that’s earned a place in the black cultural canon for its buzzy, confrontational interviews of entertainers and political leaders. While the 18-minute interview with host Charlamagne Tha God was tense overall, it wasn’t until its final moments that Biden uttered the sentence that would set social media aflame: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

The backlash was swift, with critics claiming that Biden overstepped, a sign that he’s taking the black vote for granted. Others came to the presumptive Democratic nominee’s defense, arguing that the offhand comment was “in jest.” Biden himself later went on to express regret: “I was much too cavalier. […] I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said during a virtual meeting with an organization that advocates for black economic empowerment.

Biden’s latest comments add to his portfolio of blunders and off-the-cuff remarks that have led people to question his commitment to the black community. Last year, when he invoked tender memories of working with segregationist senators to make a moot point about civility, leaders like Sen. Cory Booker criticized Biden and urged him to apologize. It also took Biden nearly 30 years to acknowledge his failings in the handling of Anita Hill’s testimony.

At the core of Biden’s latest comments are questions concerning the black community’s solidarity politics: Why do black people vote Democrat if the party, and its presumptive nominee, seem to take the black vote for granted? And will comments like these ultimately matter to black people come November?

Chryl Laird, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-author of the book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, says supporting the Democratic Party is an entrenched norm for black people. And yet while Biden’s statement isn’t technically “wrong,” it’s problematic because he, as a white person, cannot be a norm enforcer for the black community.

Laird explains to Vox how Biden’s comments might impact black voter turnout in the general election. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Fabiola Cineas

Let’s talk about the recent “The Breakfast Club” interview when Joe Biden, unprompted, said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” What was your initial reaction to his statement?

Chryl Laird

I face-palmed just thinking about it because Biden is notorious for saying out-of-pocket statements, especially with respect to race. Even with all of the ties to Obama, he’s made statements related to race around the Anita Hill situation and around segregationists. So I was not that stunningly surprised by it as much as I was like, “You need to think about what you say before you say it!” I think he is someone who appeals to black voters, as we saw in the primary. He has support, but he needs to be careful because the support he’s gotten shouldn’t just be assumed. And he doesn’t need to speak to African Americans in a way that isn’t understanding of their politics. It came off like he didn’t necessarily have respect for it. It comes off as patronizing.

Fabiola Cineas

In watching the full interview, did you feel there was an overall casual tone or carelessness on Biden’s part? And let’s break down “you ain’t black.” What’s the problem with him saying that?

Chryl Laird

The statement itself was sort of in jest, as others have said. But even in jest, you are an older white man; you are a white person, period, who is speaking on identity politics outside of your own group. You are not black, so placing yourself in that position as some arbiter of blackness makes you an interloper. This is an intra-group, within-group politics.

If I recall the full interview, in the lead up to the Biden statement, there was discussion about black politics and the election. The interview had already been a little tense between the two of them and “The Breakfast Club” is notorious for controversial interviews. I don’t know how much prep [Biden] had going into it. There’s a casualness to it that’s appropriate to this setting since he’s trying to appeal to an audience that is young, Gen Z, or millennial voters who are African American or Latino and listen to the show. He’s trying to appeal to a base of individuals whose support he did not get in the primaries.

If he were trying to appeal to older voters, who’d be listening to something like a Steve Harvey or Tom Joyner [radio show], there would be a different decorum. Same with if he were in a black church or traditional black institution. In this case, you should come with some casualness because being a stick in the mud is not going to appeal in that space. But also don’t let your guard down in the casualness that you take, because you are still a nonblack individual being invited into a black space and given a pulpit to speak to individuals that you need to work on your appeal with.

Fabiola Cineas

For me, something about Biden’s statement is reminiscent of Trump’s 2016 unscripted campaign trail appeal to black voters: “What do you have to lose?” Is that a fair comparison to make?

Chryl Laird

It’s interesting. I feel like they’re both in a similar space. They seem to be telling black people what they should do politically. It comes off as paternalistic, like black people need guidance on what they should do. As my co-author Ismail K. White and I write in Steadfast Democrats, we have frustrations with the literature on race, ethnicity, and politics because there’s been this idea that African Americans don’t have agency. For one, very little of the literature typically focuses primarily on African American political behavior. And even when blacks are the focus, it should be about giving them an agency and some consideration with respect to the constraints they find themselves in politically. Black people have to navigate a system literally not designed to include them. They’ve been added into a system that never had them in mind in the first place. So how do you politic in that? How do you engage the structure? And that is just not respected as much as we would want it to be. It assumes an ability of blacks to not understand what they should be considering.

And it’s not even that what Joe Biden said was wrong. But I think for Trump’s statement “What do you have to lose?” he actually is wrong, in a lot of ways, in saying that. It assumes there aren’t a bunch of reasons that black people wouldn’t align with the Republican Party. I think Trump sees himself in isolation, like not within the context of Republican Party history.

Fabiola Cineas

So how is what Joe Biden said not inherently wrong?

Chryl Laird

Biden is in a situation where he is speaking to the phenomenon that Ismail and I speak to. We argue that partisanship and racial identity for African Americans are very intertwined. In some ways, we’ve even said, “to be black is to be Democrat.”

Democratic partisanship is such an understood norm of the community, and it’s being done that way for a reason. It is through this constrained space that African Americans are in politics — where they’re trying to be a voice in a system that is majority-based and they are a minority group on a numerical dimension. So how do you do that? Black people have recognized that what you can do is work together in this structure as a group and throw our weight to the party and candidates that we think represent our group’s interests the best.

Chryl Laird
Chryl Laird
Courtesy of Laird

We know what our group interests are, and we maintain it by basically calling out the people who seem to not understand the norm, like blacks who decide to be Republican. And it’s not that we aren’t politically diverse: There are conservative blacks, liberal blacks, progressive blacks, moderate blacks; there are blacks who are socially conservative and economically conservative. There is a lot of political diversity, a lot more than people realize. But we still vote Democrat.

African Americans are extraordinarily aware of the system. They’re aware of what they are doing, and they are doing so with such a high level of recognition of the challenges this creates. It’s such a strange thing for people to understand. It just doesn’t sit with how we have been told politics is supposed to work because it’s a group-based politics. And, it doesn’t involve white people!

That’s the other part of it — the way we maintain it and build a collective identity around it. How we invoke ways to call out others. And we don’t care when people on the outside comment on the way we do it. Black people still do what they do. We still call Kanye West a sell-out, if we think he’s a sell-out. And people refer to [black Republican Sen.] Tim Scott that way. Tim Scott came out and said he was saddened [by Biden’s comment], as did other black Republicans. After that, black people were like, “Yeah, whatever,” because that’s how the norm works.

Fabiola Cineas

You talk about there being a spectrum of black Democratic voters. So I’m curious what you think the impact of Biden’s statement will be on black progressives, for example. And, two weeks from now, will people remember this or even care?

Chryl Laird

Several years ago, I wrote an article titled “Black Like Me: How Political Communication Changes Racial Group Identification and Its Implications.” In that article, I talk about notions of blackness and black identity around this concept of linked fate. I stratify blacks into different groupings — those who are “chronically included” (which consists of the highly educated blacks and those with high socioeconomic status who are always at the top of the black agenda or can define the agenda); then there are blacks in the middle, and I call them “moveable blacks” mainly because they are encompassing a large set of African Americans, but they’re not in this chronically included set.

I feel like the highly educated blacks are going to be the ones who remember this down the line. [Laughs] A lot of the black progressives, a lot of upper middle class blacks whose blackness has been questioned and challenged, will remember. Their blackness has been challenged because they are engaging in a lot of spaces, they are highly educated; they’re at predominantly white institutions. This hit something within them where they felt like the diversity of the black community and their views are looked down upon or overlooked by the party. Many of those individuals are the progressives and even activists working with grassroots organizations.

But for large swaths of black people, I don’t think this is even on their radar. And even if it is on their radar, they’re like, “Yeah, but it’s not wrong.” And maybe they’re bothered that a white person said it, which is valid.

Fabiola Cineas

So what does this mean for voter turnout in November? This isn’t the first time Biden has had to walk back comments related to race. Does his ongoing record of this mean he’s actively turning away black voters despite what’s at stake in the general election?

Chryl Laird

What he needs to be careful with is that those chronically included blacks have access to media outlets. They are in prominent positions, so they can keep this going and keep coming back to it. For the campaign, their attempt to deal with it was to have [Biden’s senior adviser] Symone Sanders, who’s black, and others try to pivot the way that it was being interpreted. They tried to say he’s on Charlamagne’s show in the first place, so that displays his commitment to the community. That’s what Biden needs to lean into — his commitment to black interests and black communities for those who are in that progressive realm.

And he may not get a lot of those voters. He honestly doesn’t necessarily need to get that numerically because of just how strong some of the moveable blacks and the other black individuals will be. Younger people who also comprise that progressive set sadly do not turn out in the highest numbers. So that might not be a space where he really needs to make significant inroads. But he definitely doesn’t want to piss them off either. I also think it would help if he just announced a VP that was a black woman already. That would be good! [Laughs] And Amy Klobuchar’s name has been floating around. They need to end that conversation because now they’ve just stepped in it.

For this election, there’s obviously a choice between Biden and Trump, since they’re the major candidates. But there’s also a decision between Biden and abstention, a decision to just not turn out. Turnout is the challenge that the party is dealing with. Ismail and I also write about how we don’t like the way that people talk about black turnout. They say black turnout went down in 2016 — no, it went back to normal levels. We had the pickup because a black president got elected in 2008 and 2012, which is an anomaly. We need to see the data that way. When it came down in 2016, it went back down to 2004 levels, and that’s where black people have stayed. If they’re planning on turnout being higher and they’re trying to get to Obama levels, I think many things will be motivating to black voters, like getting Trump out of office and now coronavirus.

Fabiola Cineas

This all fits into the broader conversation that Democrats take the black vote for granted. Similarly, we don’t see leaders on the right enacting enduring policy that creates real prosperity for the black community. So what’s a message you have for black people on how to maintain a sense of dignity and direction as we make voting decisions in a framework that constrains us?

Cheryl Laird

Black individuals, even the chronically included people (and I am a member of said bougie contingent — I have a PhD; I work at a private liberal arts college; I live in Maine), all of us, shouldn’t be ashamed of what we do politically. There’s a way in which the concern about the white gaze or what white people think of us starts to become very concerning. I think that’s a lot of what we saw on Friday. People were very bothered by a notion that white people are seeing us and this is how they’re going to think about us, and that Biden clearly believes this and others are going to look at us and not think we are diverse. I say don’t worry about it. I think what we have in strength and power politically is the fact that we do have strength and power politically. It speaks to why Biden even has to apologize. It speaks to the power of what it did in the primaries.

Black people are making very difficult political decisions in a very constrained space. Many blacks are risk averse because government is slow and clunky. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Bernie Sanders’s campaign was struggling with this. They were making it sound like they were going to change the world in two presidential terms and black people, especially older blacks in the South, were looking at him like, “I don’t know you. It’s never happened. That’s not a thing. No one can do that. Give me something more realistic.” And you see what they did in South Carolina [by voting for Biden in the primary]. Everyone seemed shook, but that was expected. It is a strategic and very informed decision.

I think black people have to be more politically aware than anyone else because of where we are situated in society. We are lucky enough, unlike other communities like American Indian populations, to have the numbers to leverage power, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think sometimes people feel shame about it. It makes them feel like sometimes we are collectively “on the Democratic Plantation” and that we “don’t have minds of our own or free thoughts.”

Black people are thinking; they aren’t just blindly making decisions. And even if they don’t articulate it the way we are — we are lucky enough to have gone to college, gotten degrees, and have the time, resources, and linguistics to talk about these things — that’s okay. If other black people are saying, “I’m voting for this person because black people are like, ‘this is what we do,’” I don’t know how that’s any different from any other type of group politics. People are just confused by it manifesting for blacks. We do it for the parties — that’s party politics and what all politics is. And people are trying to pretend like it’s not.

Right now in the pandemic, there are anti-lockdown people and anti-vaxxers collectively organizing under an identity and behaving in certain ways based on that. I think black people should feel unabashed in what we do. We are doing it, and we are brilliant. And the fact that Biden even has to pay attention to this, and that Trump’s campaign has picked up on it, is a signal to how important the black vote is to both campaigns.

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