The Deification of the Older Black Voter

Illustration for article titled The Deification of the Older Black Voter
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Joe Biden is surging. Following a blowout win in the South Carolina primary, the former Vice President has received a much needed Super Tuesday boost in states like Virginia and Texas, where he and frontrunner Bernie Sanders were virtually tied. In California, where Sanders still leads, polling average aggregator FiveThirtyEight reported that Biden went from having 13 percent of the vote on February 29 to 21 percent of the vote as of March 3, after endorsements from Congressman Jim Clyburn and former primary challengers Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke.

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Biden could very well be the comeback kid, and he’s already thanking black voters—the so-called backbone of the Democratic party—for his resurrection. According to a CNN exit poll, approximately 60 percent of black voters supported Biden in South Carolina, and while they skewed older—over 60 years old—36 percent of black voters under 30 supported him, while 38 percent supported Sanders, who tends to hold a substantial lead with younger black voters across the country. Whether this is due to voters leaning more conservative regardless of race or Biden’s numbers hinging on his South Carolina blowout, the narrative out of the state was clear and convenient for Sanders skeptics: For all of Sanders’s claims that he has a broad coalition behind him, who cares? The coveted black voter has spoken, and they have chosen Biden as their one-way ticket out of Trumpville.

This is a narrative that is, predictably, amplified by cable news pundits. James Carville was practically salivating on MSNBC on Saturday night when he said, “The single most important demographic in the Democratic Party spoke up tonight... We get all enamored, and tonight we were reminded of what and who the Democratic Party is.” Rachel Maddow said, “If anybody knows anything about winning the Democratic nomination and about what it takes for a Democratic nominee to win a general election, it is black voters.”

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It’s perhaps unfair to characterize them—as some on the left apparently have—as low-info voters, or naive simpletons hoping that Biden will usher in President Obama: The Redux, or lemmings for The Establishment. However, it’s equally frustrating when pushback to the low-info black voter narrative looks like one that is also rife in the stereotype of some sort of preternatural sageness of the black voter. Biden’s South Carolina win has been coupled with a narrative that older black voters possess some kind of otherworldy pragmatism that allows them to cut through the bullshit and see the world—and, apparently, electoral politics—for what it is. That they’ve been through enough struggle and suffering to call a thing a thing. That they possess keen instincts that others in the American electorate can only dream of.

On Monday, CNN’s Bakari Sellers tweeted, “I’ve heard black voters particularly in the South be described as low information, the billionaire class, the establishment, etc. My momma ain’t one of them. She just trust Biden more than Bernie.” Artist Bree Newsome, who became known nationwide after climbing the flag pole of the South Carolina Capitol Building and lowering its Confederate flag in 2015, responded to Sellers’s tweet, saying that black people too often skirt over real conversations about policy and structural change, and how Biden—regardless of how trustworthy he seems—upholds the status quo.

“All the focus on not disrespecting elderly Black voters in the South is a way to avoid discussion of why we need sweeping reform, by framing the conversation around how folks personally feel about Biden & Sanders [and] deflecting from examining how moderate Dems undermine progress,” she said. Newsome is right, and it does us and our elders a disservice not to have these conversations.

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My dad voted early for Joe Biden in California. When I told him that I was disappointed by his vote, especially considering the fact that Biden doesn’t support Medicare for All, my dad was surprised. He had no idea Biden wasn’t on board with Medicare for All.

“I’m sure he’ll change his mind,” he said.

“I doubt it,” I replied.

I regret not talking his ear off earlier, or as much as I talked about this tedious political nonsense with my mom: After months of consideration, she decided to vote for Bernie Sanders.

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I respect black elders, but I refuse to deify them. And I certainly refuse to believe that we are all prioritizing the same fights. The needs of a 67-year-old black woman living on a pension and relying on medicare are not necessarily the same as mine, a 29-year-old black woman with student loan debt and a boyfriend who recently underwent cancer surgery and several rounds of chemo and is currently on my insurance. Sometimes—perhaps often—our needs will converge, but there will be times when our elders will not match our sense of urgency, will not match our sense of imagination, and will not be there for us. We can’t shrug that off or assume they know better.

It’s fun to joke about how black people—notably, black women—can so easily play the “I told ya so” game. On the Iraq War, on Trump, on the Kardashians. But black people are not infallible. They are susceptible to bad messaging. They can brush off the racist record of Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden’s history of playing chicken with social security. They can fall prey to inaccurate talking points about the progressive agenda of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They can be rattled by Russophobia and bad Facebook posts. They can be guilty of the same “fuck you, I got mine” attitude that is often relegated to greedy white people.

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Black people are not a monolith, and while we may not have wildly different party affiliations to bicker about at the dinner table, the idea that there aren’t things that we disagree with—by class, region, religious affiliation, education, and age—is ludicrous. If anything, we should fight about these things more.

Older black voters in South Carolina were clearly sticking to what feels familiar with this election cycle. That’s their prerogative, just as it is mine to say that their comfort zone—a sycophantic cesspool of moderate Democrats clamoring for a return to so-called normalcy—still leaves too many people uninsured or underinsured, too many people without affordable housing, too many people vulnerable to ICE, too many people suffering in a climate hellscape, too many people who cannot afford childcare, too many people hesitant to start families due to insurmountable debt, and so much more. Their comfort zone is our hell, and acting like Aunt Mya’s support of such an agenda is just another example of “the elders be knowin’” does all of us a huge disservice. Aunt Mya should be called out and engaged, not revered with little pushback. Besides, it’s incredibly debatable whether their return to normalcy platform can even beat Trump without enthusiasm, and grassroots support, and young voters.

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They’re relying on wishful thinking, just like the rest of us.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

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DISCUSSION

There seems to be an idea that older voters in general hold that the candidate who appears to be in the exact middle of all the candidates on both sides is by default the best candidate. I have had any number of older relatives and acquaintances happily identify Biden as that candidate to me. “He’s right in the center! He gets along with everyone! He won’t rock the boat!” (And yes, to a large extent, what they mean by this when questioned further is “I’ve got mine.” That Joe regularly plays chicken with Social Security never seems to register. He’s good ol’ Joe! He wouldn’t do that! Then again, at least in my family, they think that about “moderate” Republicans too. Not gonna take away my benefits! Other people’s maybe, but not mine!)