Black people delivered the presidency to Joe Biden. His campaign was an embarrassing structure fire until Black voters in South Carolina showed up to save it. In primary after primary, they rejected fresh media darling Pete Buttigieg, pushed back against openly progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, kicked Mayor Stop-and-Frisk to the curb, and couldn’t even be moved by other candidates of color like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Andrew Yang. They understood—correctly, it turns out, and over the objection of many younger Black pundits like me—that this is a deeply racist country and that a majority of white people would vote for a Republican, as a majority of them have in every presidential election since Nixon honed the Southern strategy. They saw Biden as the candidate best situated to appeal to the minority of white voters who could abide Donald Trump’s bigotry but couldn’t stand his incompetence. And, with a major assist from Kamala Harris to shore up the underrepresented communities who were sick of racism and patriarchy, Biden was able to defeat Trump.
On the surface, Black Americans have gotten what we wanted out of Biden: Namely, he won. Trump is no longer president. The openly white supremacist policies of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr, no longer emanate from the executive branch. Black people have saved America from itself—again.
Biden promised to remember who put him in power, and when it comes to how his administration looks, he more or less has. But when it comes to what his administration does, the results so far have been predictably underwhelming. The white, right, and mainstream media loves to tag Biden as some kind of secret socialist, quietly pushing an anti-cop agenda at the behest of Black Lives Matter and conducting critical race séances in the White House basement. But this administration is not radical, not anti-racist, and not moving nearly fast enough to advance actual policies that will secure the fundamental rights of the people who put it in charge.
Not all of that is Biden’s fault. The For the People Act, which would nullify many state laws aimed at suppressing the Black vote, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are stalled in the Senate because a few Democrats lack the courage to do what’s necessary to bring them to Biden’s desk. So too is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bare minimum attempt to ban some forms of police brutality. Biden cannot deliver on some of his legislative promises as long as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and various whites-only “problem solvers” caucuses refuse to tear down the policies of white supremacy.
But some of this is Biden’s fault. While a Democratically controlled Congress refuses to pass legislation, Biden could affect policing at the federal level—today, if he wanted. He could ban excessive-force tactics, like choke holds, from federal law enforcement. He could recall military equipment that has been gifted to local forces. He could stop agencies like the FBI and the ATF from seeking or executing no-knock warrants. He could do something about ICE: abolish it, disarm it, retrain it, punish it for human rights violations—literally any “reform” would be better than what we have now. Biden has released a comprehensive plan to deal with domestic terrorism but nothing to deal with state-sponsored terrorism carried out by American police.
When it comes to securing voting rights, Biden should be using his power aggressively. He should be expanding the courts, flooding them with judges who respect the 15th Amendment and its promise of equal franchise. He should throw out the census taken by the previous administration, which undercounted communities of color in an effort to further vitiate their political power, and conduct a new count. (This would not be the first time a census was effectively tossed.) Every shred of executive power should be marshaled toward securing the next election against Republican attempts to disenfranchise voters of color. Lawyer Marc Elias has lawsuits going in 14 states trying to disrupt these attacks on voting rights, and Biden’s Justice Department should join all of them.
Instead, Biden has adopted a cautious, moderate approach that relies on herding senators like cats. The New York Times reports that over three people have died at the hands of law enforcement every single day since March 29. More than half of those are Black or Latinx. Unless the Covid vaccine makes me bulletproof, I’m going to need more from the Biden administration than efficient distribution of medicine.
Biden defenders plead for more time, but I don’t think any of us expected him to solve all of these problems—some of which go back to the very founding of this country by slavers and colonists—in six months. Instead, we merely hoped that he and his team would be “on top of it,” that they’d prioritize bringing relief to Black Americans from the constant attacks on our rights, freedoms, and dignity. I hoped this administration would prosecute our tormentors and punish our predators. I hoped it would draft the kind of legal bulwarks necessary to protect Black and brown citizens from the next Republican administration that is surely just lurking around the corner. I hoped Black people would be able to take a goddamn day off, and I don’t think I was alone in those heady dreams of a moment’s peace.
Unfortunately, while the Biden administration is slouching toward justice, Republicans have responded to their loss of power at the federal level by doubling down at the state level. GOP governors have passed the most dizzying array of voter restrictions since the end of Reconstruction. They have launched a frontal attack on education, effectively arguing against the inclusion of Black history in the narrative of the country we built without compensation. Our representatives of color are threatened and harassed in the Capitol by white Republican congresspeople.
Black people are under attack in this country, and those attacks have only seemed to intensify since the Republicans’ bigoted mascot lost the presidential election. But you wouldn’t know it if you only listened to Biden and other white Democratic leaders. I’ve heard them give a more full-throated defense of Liz Cheney than Ilhan Omar this year.
But, about a year from now, Biden and the Democrats will be back in Black and brown communities, begging for votes. They’ll tout the vaccine and the stimulus bill, which certainly helped people of color along with everybody else. But they’ll have no record of achievements that specifically protected Black and brown people from the unrelenting attacks we face from white-wing lawmakers, police, and judges.
It’s all so tiring. Black people are required to invest sweat, tears, and often blood merely to participate in this democracy, and when we do—when we literally save this country from a deranged cult of know-nothing authoritarians—the reward is watching our most desperate concerns get shunted to the side so white people can feel normal again.
I do think Biden cares about the concerns of the Black voters who put him in office. I just think that Republicans care about the concerns of the white supremacists who keep them in office more. Trying to get Democrats to bridge that gap is exhausting.