Joe Biden won the Democratic primary thanks to Black voters in diverse states who repeatedly turned to him over the other contenders for the nomination. He won the presidency thanks in part to the overwhelming support he received from Black voters. Then his party was handed control of the Senate thanks to the unprecedented registration and turnout of Black voters in Georgia.
Biden has paid back the faith the Black community put in him with one of the most diverse administrations in American history. He has put forward the most diverse slate of federal judicial nominees and has nominated the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. And, unlike his predecessor, he’s done these and other things without giving aid and comfort to white supremacists. The Biden era has been a reminder of what a pluralistic, diverse government looks like.
For some of Biden’s Black supporters, that will be enough. In a world where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis can’t go a fortnight without coming up with some neo-Confederate policy to excite his white supremacist base, Biden’s commitment to racial inclusivity can’t be taken for granted. He’s a lot better than the former guy.
But when I filled in the bubble for Biden in November 2020, I was hoping for something more. I was hoping for actual policies, not merely appointments and platitudes. I wanted Biden to address the state-sponsored terrorism carried out by the police as well as the Republican attacks on voting rights. And I wasn’t alone. Many Black people spent an entire summer—during a pandemic—protesting in the streets, demanding reforms to policing. Meanwhile, Black activists and voting rights experts have been warning for years that Republican voter suppression policies will return us to a Jim Crow–style electoral system.
The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have done nothing to address these two critical policy concerns rising up from the Black communities who put them in power. The response to the attacks on voting rights—which are really attacks on democracy—has amounted to some speeches and bills that have passed the House, only to die in the Senate. The inability of the Democratic Party to protect its own electoral interests when it has the power to do so will be studied by future historians trying to puzzle out what went wrong in late-republic America.
Still, at least the subject of voting rights gets the occasional speech or news segment. The fight against police brutality has fallen out of fashion altogether. Democratic leaders have spent more time in the past year blaming those protesting police brutality than doing anything to stop the perpetrators of police brutality from killing again. It’s like having your house burn down while the firefighters stand there and say, “You seem preoccupied with having the fire extinguished, while most Americans only support fire prevention.”
The Biden administration has gotten a pass for its utter failure to address police malfeasance for a number of reasons. Pollsters love to poll “defund the police” instead of the actual policies that enable police brutality, so “bad messaging” has been the narrative white media has latched onto. Black communities still desperately want something done about violent police forces: A Gallup poll last summer found that just 27 percent of Black people expressed “confidence” in the police, with a 37 point gap in confidence between whites and blacks. Yet Gallup spun that as a positive, because the 27 percent was “up” from 19 percent during the Trump era. Only in America could white people be heartened that three-fourths of Black people have no confidence in the police.
Meanwhile, since policing is primarily a local concern governed by state and municipal rules, the administration and Congress have been able to shirk their responsibility and leave it to the states, with most people accepting the inaction as proper. The federal government will take over any investigation that starts with two brown people talking to each other at a mosque. It will use federal authority to deport immigrants and their children. But when it comes time to stop a police officer from violating my constitutional right to drive while Black without harassment, suddenly the federal government pretends to be powerless.
Consider the lethal horror that is the choke hold. Within a year of George Floyd’s murder, the Associated Press reported that 17 states had banned or significantly limited choke holds—which may be “progress” but is also pathetic. I know there will be members of the white limited-government crowd who consider me insufficiently grateful that there are now 17 states where it’s illegal for an officer to choke me to death in broad daylight (unless he has a really good reason), but the power of math compels me to point out that this leaves 33 states that do not ban the practice. Is there a good reason that a tactic ruled too brutal to be used legally in Illinois can be used freely in Louisiana, or is it just the old intellectually bankrupt “state’s rights” argument that has been used to justify literally every form of oppression inflicted on black people in this country?
The federal government has not prohibited local law enforcement from using choke holds, but it could. It has not prohibited the use of no-knock warrants, but it could. It has not promulgated use-of-force guidelines, created nationwide standards for transparency in law enforcement, or revoked qualified immunity—which is something that only the federal government can do since the doctrine is entirely made up by federal judges.
The federal government’s authority to make these reforms is in the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fifth Amendment requires due process of law. The 14th Amendment requires equal protection of the laws. There are 50 states and over 3,000 sheriff’s offices or police zones that hold some law enforcement power. The Constitution is supposed to apply to all of them. We need federal legislation protecting constitutional rights from violent police because, over 150 years after the Civil War, I’m sick of waiting for Alabama to get the memo.
But the Biden administration has not prioritized that; as with voting rights, they’d like me to blame literally anyone or anything else for the failure. I’m supposed to blame a slogan or Republican senators or Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema or the fullness of the Biden agenda.
The police killed more people in 2021 than they have since 2013, which is when people even bothered to start tracking how many lives are taken by law enforcement nationwide. Maybe the problem isn’t slogans. Maybe we need federal attention to this problem, as was promised, instead of more Democratic excuses for inaction.
Biden said he’d have the backs of the Black people who put him in power, but Black people are still being shot in the back while the federal government exercises its right to remain silent.