Joe Biden smashed the competition in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary over the weekend. He beat his next closest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by almost 30 points. In the first state where the African American vote has been a consequential force, Biden’s consistent strength among black folks took the day: He won 61 percent of African American voters, according to exit polling.
Many people, including the Biden campaign, will tell you that Biden’s strong showing is an indication of his “electability” in a general election. Biden has been running as the “safe” choice to take on Trump. African Americans, especially those in the South, who have the most to lose with the reelection of a bigot who courts the favor of white supremacists, would seem to agree. Biden has led in the polling among black people since he set foot in this race.
It’s reasonable to ask why. Biden has spent most of the campaign stepping on rakes and losing himself in foggy memories of times gone by. His debate performances have been listless. His speeches and town halls have been heavy on empathy but horrifying on factual accuracy. The reality of Biden feels considerably less safe than the idea of Biden. In fact, it has been Biden’s apparent weakness that is primarily responsible for making Mike Bloomberg think he can swoop in and buy the nomination.
Biden’s actual history and policy record also makes him a weird choice to be the leader among African American voters. Biden has gone to great lengths to claim credit for the successes of the Obama administration—to the point where I’m starting to wonder what Obama did all day while Biden was busy making things happen. Biden claims to have been “there” for everything that’s been done by Democrats for the past 40 years. But only the good parts! The now reviled 1994 crime bill, which Biden wrote; his shameful treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings; his opposition to busing and friendliness with segregationists—all of that is part of his record too. But none of it has hurt him. If Kamala Harris had benefited from this kind of selective memory when it comes to policy, this entire race might be different.
Biden’s strength among African Americans in South Carolina was not universal. Black people are not a monolith, and the exit polling showed a split that has become familiar during this primary. Bernie Sanders narrowly beat Joe Biden among black voters under 30. And Bernie didn’t even have to “back that azz up” to get it. But Biden won a sweeping 75 percent of black voters over 60.
What explains that? What explains the fact that the oldest black voters, the elders in our community who have a living memory of oppression and violence that I’ve only read about, voted in overwhelming numbers for a rickety white guy who occasionally thinks he’s in a John Wayne movie?
Some people on Twitter, including people who weirdly think of themselves as part of Bernie Sanders’s coalition, chalked up Biden’s win to “low information voters” in South Carolina. The argument would be offensive if it weren’t also so dumb. Older black voters in South Carolina have a lifetime of education and experience dealing with the most persistent threat to their safety and rights in this country: white people.
My read of the South Carolina vote is that black people know exactly what they’re doing, and why. Joe Biden is the indictment older black folks have issued against white America. His support is buttressed by chunks of the black community who have determined that most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They believe if you make white people choose between their money and their morality—between candidates like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren (who somehow finished fifth in South Carolina, behind Pete Buttigieg) and candidates like Biden and Michael Bloomberg—they will choose their money every time and twice on Election Day.
The New York Times interviewed a 39-year-old African American voter in South Carolina. I found his analysis instructive. He told the Times: “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.… So yeah, we’ll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.”
This debate about what white America is really prepared to do has been the most vital one in the black community since the start of the primary. It transcends policy, “likeability,” or even “electability” at least as the media seems to use the term. It goes to the core of what black people think white people are willing to do, plotted against what we know they are capable of. The Root’s politics editor, Dr. Jason Johnson, put it like this to me in one of our text debates on this crucial matter: “Voting for Bernie Sanders requires that black people believe that white people will do something they’ve never done: willingly and openly share the economic bounty of the United States.”
He’s not wrong, and what’s more, older black voters in South Carolina know he’s not wrong. Black people are ready for an economically progressive candidate. But they’ve tried that before and been rebuffed.
African American voters in South Carolina have gone with the eventual Democratic nominee in every primary over the past 32 years, except on two occasions. And those two exceptions are notable. In 1988, during a campaign where Joe Biden would have to drop out because of a plagiarism scandal, native South Carolinian Jesse Jackson easily won the state, crushing eventual nominee Michael Dukakis. Jackson would go on to win 92 percent of the black vote over the course of the 1988 primary, which is a higher percentage than Barack Obama won in 2008. So maybe that’s an anomaly.
But the other exception to black South Carolinian foresight was in 2004. That was the year former North Carolina senator John Edwards narrowly defeated eventual nominee John Kerry among black voters, and that was in a primary in which Reverend Al Sharpton was on the ballot and pulled in 17 percent of the black vote.
People forget this now because of his personal failings, but Edwards ran a campaign grounded in an unapologetically anti-poverty message. Moreover, the 2004 Democratic primary transpired in the face of one of the worst presidents black people had encountered in at least a few years, George W. Bush. But in an election that felt every bit as critically important as this one—and if those left to die on the rooftops of New Orleans could speak, they’d tell you that 2004 was as important as this one—black people in South Carolina went with the economic progressive of that time. Nationally, Kerry did end up winning the black vote, but only with 56 percent support, a lower percentage than any other nominee over the past 32 years except Dukakis.
So when you ask older black people what the white electorate, Democratic or Republican, are capable of, they remember. They remember that this country has spent the better part of 40 years lauding the racially destructive policies of Ronald Reagan. They remember that actual progressive choices, like Jackson and Edwards, were rejected by white Democrats. They remember that white people failed to turn on George W. Bush, despite his legacy of incompetence and torture, and instead reelected him. They remember that the majority of white people did not vote for the first black president, spent eight years attacking his every move, and then replaced him with the most small-minded bigot they could find, rejecting an immensely qualified white woman in the process.
Learning these lessons about what white people will do is part of growing up black in this country. Many young black people start out assuming that white people are better than they’ve shown, that the stories of past white failures are things white people have learned from. I have small children and I certainly want them to believe that they will encounter better, more reliable white people in their life than I have encountered in my own. I want them to believe in coalitions, and in allies. But I’m also aging. The hope I try to impart to my kids sometimes feels fraudulent, like I’m raising them for a world I no longer believe will exist. Eventually, I’ll be old enough and strong enough to do for my children what so many black parents have to do: rip the innocence from them and teach them how things really are.
Older black people know white people. They’ve suffered because of them more than anybody else. In the first primary of 2020 in which black people had a voice, the message I heard from the elders was “Vote for Biden, because white people gonna white.” I’m, at best, one last election away from fully agreeing with them.