I Have Your Back
Trymaine Lee: There's this one line in President-elect Joe Biden's victory speech that I haven't been able to shake.
Joe Biden: Especially those moments-- and especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again (HITS MIC) for me. (APPLAUSE) You've always had my back. And I'll have yours.
Lee: It's that last part. "You've always had my back, and I'll have yours." Black voters kept Joe Biden's presidential hopes alive during Democratic primaries. Remember Super Tuesday?
Archival Recording: These are the results nobody saw coming. Let's go straight to the map this morning. Joe Biden surging to victories in nine states.
Lee: And despite some skepticism about Biden's past positions, Black support continued in the general election. We showed up and showed out in critical swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all but assuring a Biden victory over Donald Trump.
But by and large, Black support didn't come easily. It took work. After losing enthusiasm for the Democratic Party in 2016 organizers fanned out across the country to remind Black folks that they had a major stake in this election. And not just in big blue cities, but in more unexpected places, too.
Brittany Smalls: We go into these areas and we let them know that Black voters matter. It's about you. It's about us. It's-- we matter.
Lee: The final numbers aren't in yet. But this grassroots, ground-level push did indeed seem to work. Early data show that turnout was up in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, and mail-in ballots from heavily Black cities including Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Philly helped give Biden the edge in those crucial states. So when Biden says that Black voters have had his back, he ain't lying. But what does it mean to have their back in return?
Eddie Glaude: Well, you know, he has to change the center of gravity of his politics. And what I mean by that, he has to change who matters to his conception of politics.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Time and again Black voters have felt underappreciated, taken for granted. So after a history-making election that's carried Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House, many of us are asking, "Will this time be different? What's owed to the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency? And how will Black voters hold the Biden administration to its promises?" When Joe Biden won Pennsylvania, he won the election.
Lester Holt: NBC News now projects that Joe Biden has won the Keystone State, Pennsylvania, and its 20 electoral votes.
Archival Recording: And that means we can now project that former Vice President Joe Biden has been elected President of the United States. He is President-elect, Joseph Robinette Biden.
Lee: President Trump still hasn't conceded the loss and is suing to contest Biden's victory in Pennsylvania, among other states. But for organizers on the ground who helped get a record nine million Pennsylvanians registered to vote in 2020, there's no disputing Biden's win.
Smalls: I feel pretty good. I feel pretty good. You know, got this W. So I'm happy.
Lee: This is Brittany Smalls. She's the statewide coordinator in Pennsylvania for Black Voters Matter. She says the mission of the organization is simple.
Smalls: We turn out Black voters. We go into these marginalized communities that are not really looked at, you know? 'Cause certain strategies of different campaigns are to attack the super-voters. And we talk to those folks that people would consider as hard to count, or just not really engaged in the election process.
Because we try to reiterate to folks that this is your power. This is your form of protest. And we go into these areas and we let them know that Black Voters Matter, it's about you. It's about us. It's, we matter. If we want to see the leadership and the changes, you know, that we want to see in our communities, we have to stand up--
Smalls: --and be accountable for ourselves.
Lee: When people describe Black voters especially as hard to reach voters, what are they saying when they say that? What does that even mean?
Smalls: In our communities, we are dealing with several pandemics. Low education systems. Jobs. We need to increase the minimum wage. We are dealing with even climate control in our communities. So many things we're fighting against. When you think about being in a pandemic right now, I know a mother that has four children and only one laptop in her home. So if you're dealing with that, and still trying to go to work to feed these four children, voting is not particularly at the top of the list.
Lee: Hm. Life is a little complicated for a lot of people.
Lee: It's easy to say, "Oh, go out and vote." But it's, like, these people have a lot of hurdles to get over just to get to the poll.
Smalls: Yes. Yes.
Lee: Black Voters Matter was fanning out across the country to engage Black voters and organize. But what were you doing in 2020? What was your specific role?
Smalls: What I did was, back in January, we sat down and we looked at specific communities around Pennsylvania that we could target. And some of those target areas included Philadelphia, Delaware County, Montgomery County, Dauphin County. Alleghany County.
And later on we were introduced to target areas like Beaver County, Aliquippa, which is completely Black. It's a small community inside of Beaver County that no one ever goes to. And we also ventured out to Erie, Pennsylvania. Because we learned that there is a Black community.
And I've been in Pennsylvania my entire life. Philadelphia. But through this election cycle I was able to really learn Pennsylvania, and where we are. Because, you know, from a big scope you see Philly and Pittsburgh, and that's all Black folks.
Lee: And maybe Harrisburg in the middle, maybe.
Smalls: And maybe Harrisburg, yeah. But people think that we are this big organization and that we have, you know, so many staff. But it was just me and one organizer here in Pennsylvania.
Smalls: But we built partnerships. So we built partnerships with leaders that are on the ground in these communities and we support them with resources. I was just, like, so excited and I wanted to touch every Black person in Pennsylvania.
Lee: Is there as difference in the way that you engage because of what they want and need for their communities?
Smalls: I don't think that it differs. I just think that we were just far removed. That we could not really connect that we're all suffering. But we have to take care of each other.
Lee: What was it like when you first got to Erie County? 'Cause in 2016, Trump narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in Erie County, right? I think it's two points?
Smalls: Two points. It was very red. (LAUGH)
Lee: Just nothin' but red. You look at it, it's red. (LAUGH) Just red.
Smalls: But there's actually a thriving Black community in Erie, Pennsylvania. And I felt like I should have known this--
Lee: Yeah, right. (LAUGHTER)
Smalls: --you know, prior to this election cycle. But, you know, we were able to really bring some resources to that community. And that's what I was excited about. We have an NAACP chapter there that was not really, you know, targeted. They needed some support.
Lee: How do you actually lay out a plan here specific for a community like Erie?
Smalls: The thing about it is, we don't lay out a plan for our folks. We let the folks tell us what they need in their communities.
Lee: Right, gotcha.
Smalls: Because I think that's the problem, is that groups go into these areas and decide what they're gonna do in these communities. There are leaders everywhere you go. We have to allow them to establish themselves.
Lee: And did that effort work? Did you get there? You let the people lead you? You help provide resources based on what they tell you. But do you ultimately think it worked?
Smalls: Trymaine. We got 100% turnout in some of these precincts (LAUGH) in Erie County. 100%.
Lee: Wow. 100%?
Smalls: --do you think it worked? (LAUGHTER) Because I do. (LAUGH)
Lee: And when you saw Pennsylvania getting blue, and bluer and bluer to where we are now, how did that feel?
Smalls: It's a feeling I can't describe, honestly. I really cannot. I'm lookin' at the map and I'm like, "Wow. These were the communities that we were in." Honestly. And then when you see the number. 80%, 90%.
Lee: That's right.
Lee: That includes a lot of Black folks in there right there.
Smalls: That includes a lot of Black folks in there. This has been a long four years. It's been a long nine months. We're in the middle of a pandemic. There are folks still suffering right now and it's kinda hard to celebrate, Trymaine.
Smalls: Because I'm still thinking about my folks. So it's hard to celebrate because I carried all those-- like, the burden of my family. I carry the burden of my friends. You know, just the complete suffering. But I know that we are headed in the right direction.
Lee: There was a moment during Joe Biden's speech on Saturday night where he said to the Black community, "You've always had my back, and I'll have yours." What do you think he meant from that? And do you think that, like, this time might be somehow different? Do you think that Black folks will get some meaningful assistance, resources, be paid back for the loyalty (LAUGH) and putting Joe Biden in office?
Smalls: I know this time will be different. You know why I know this time will be different? Because it's not just before, when we just sit back and say, "Okay, y'all got our vote and we go back to normalcy." No. Because we have groups like Black Voters Matter on the ground, that's going to hold these folks accountable in the administration.
But we can't put everything on the presidency. We gotta hold these local electeds accountable. We have the cabinet positions accountable. (LAUGH) It's a cohesive effort that has to come from our government to assure that our folks have what they need. The thing about it is, is that again, we're not going away silently. (LAUGH) We will be loud. (LAUGH) We will have our voices heard. And we will carry the concerns of the community with us when we're speaking. (MUSIC)
Lee: So now we have a clear picture of what Joe Biden when meant when he said Black voters had his back this election. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into turning out the Black vote. But what does it look like for him to have their back in return? More on that after the break.
Lee: We're back. I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And we're taking some time today to tease apart that line Biden had during his first speech as president-elect. I have a feel it's a line we're gonna hear a lot over the next four years. Addressing Black voters, Biden said--
Biden: You've always had my back. And I'll have yours.
Lee: We'll get into what it looks like to keep that promise in just a minute. But first let's go a little deeper into what really got Black voters out there for Joe Biden. As we've heard, it wasn't just some blind sense of devotion or loyalty. It took a lot of hard work on the ground. But I want to talk about why that hard work paid off, why Black voters showed up.
Glaude: I have a few intuitions about what drove Black turnout.
Lee: Eddie Glaude is chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University and an analyst for MSNBC.
Glaude: Obviously it was the disaster of the last four years. Trump, you know, revealed himself for the white nationalist that he is. The policies disproportionately impacted our communities. When we think about what COVID-19 has been doing in Black and brown communities in particular. I think one in 1,000 Black folk have died from COVID-19. When we think about those data, that's horrifying.
Glaude: And then you think about the economy that's in tatters. Right? Who is on the front lines of experiencing that collapse? And then you combine that with the reality that police are still killing us. So I think what motivated voters this cycle very clearly was the disaster of Donald Trump.
And I think that Black folk made a decision-- I know I did-- that we couldn't take a risk on reaching for a progressive agenda. We just needed to get him out of office. So I think there's a segment of Black folk who said, "Well, we're gonna vote for anybody who's not Donald Trump."
But I think there's a segment of Black folk who are excited about Joe Biden. I think the majority of Black voters are just excited about Kamala Harris, even though some are skeptical of her politics. So I think it's a kind of combination, Trymaine, of a variety of reasons why we turned out in the way we did.
Lee: And so much of that work comes down to organizers, and brothers and sisters on the ground reaching to communities that aren't often reached. Right? Going to places that few even in the establishment dare to go. And we just spoke to a sister named Brittany Smalls.
And she's an organizer with Black Voters Matter. And she's serious. She's the truth. (LAUGH) And that whole organization has done a lot of great work. But I wonder if you think the Democrats truly appreciate and understand not just the work, but what was actually accomplished in organizing Black voters this cycle?
Glaude: Not really. Not from what I'm hearing. I mean, we weren't 24, 48 hours out of the election and we start hearing, you know, the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party engaged in a rhetoric to discipline the quote-unquote left wing or the progressive wing of the party. Right?
Saying that, you know, Medicare for All, defund the police, this sort of rhetoric was detrimental to candidates in other places. And particularly Representative Clyburn and what he was saying without any data, how he was accounting for what happened to Jamie Harrison's candidacy.
James Clyburn: Jamie Harrison started to plateau when "defund the police" showed up with a caption on TV right across his head. That stuff hurt Jimmy.
Glaude: You know, there's a sense in which, you know, the Democratic Party will cry foul when we don't turn up and turn out. And then they take us for granted when we do. And so here we are. We know Biden would not have won this election without us.
And we know that organizers had to do an extraordinary amount of work to convince Black folk to turn out, in some ways. Some Black folk who were disaffected for obvious reasons. And so the short answer to the question, bro, is I don't think so.
Lee: When you hear those ideas being floated that "defund the police" and other policy ideas pushed from Black folks and pushed from the left were detrimental to some candidates, what I almost hear is that Black interests can be divisive, and Black interests are charged. How does Joe Biden skirt around and navigate and engage with (LAUGH) all of that?
Glaude: Well, you know, he has to change the center of gravity of his politics. And what I mean by that, he has to change who matters to his conception of politics. So for the last 40 years, the image of the ideal voter has been this white working class voter.
And the Democratic Party has been engaged in this begging ritual, trying to beg the Reagan Democrat to return to the fold. And everything has been driven by this desire to reclaim that constituency, by taking for granted, right, the base.
So given the Demographic shifts, given the economic reality, given the ideological shifts-- it seems to me that what Biden has to do is govern with a different political actor in mind. What does it mean to imagine the coalition that will change the country in the way in which Stacey Abrams imagines it.
In the way in which matters voters matter how they imagine it, right? I think once you shift that center of gravity then you're gonna get a different kind of political calculus. A different approach to policy and the like. But as long as at the center of their political imaginations is this quote-unquote idealized white working class voter they will do what they have always done. At least in my political lifetime.
Lee: And we're already hearing talk of Biden possibly tapping John Kasich to be part of his cabinet. What does that say? (LAUGH) What do you think that-- what signal is that sending?
Glaude: It's the same-old, same-old. I mean, John Kasich was one of Newt Gingrich's attack dogs, doc. When we think about the shift of the political spectrum to the right, right? That shift makes John Kasich reasonable. So the idea, for me, of listening to John Kasich tell the Democratic Party what we should be doing is anathema.
It makes no sense to me. It's a mush in the face to Black voters. Right? You didn't get there through John Kasich. He can tell that lie. But John Kasich's voters didn't put you in the White House. It's almost a sign of insanity that these folk are reaching for a form of politics going back to the old centrist DLC Third Way Democratic Party as a response to Trumpism. When in fact that political orientation contributed to the emergence of Trumpism.
Lee: So one side of the coin we hear, you know, John Kasich's name being floated which has that response that you just gave. On the other we have Joe Biden, you know, banging on a lectern saying, "You've always had my back and now I'm gonna have yours." And I wonder whose back is he talking about? Right? Between progressive and the old traditional bloc, like, who do you think he's talking about?
Glaude: I don't know yet. I don't want to pre-judge. It seems to me that will have to see whether or not he means that he's just going to give cushy jobs to Black elites, or whether he's going to actually implement policy that's going to address the circumstances of Black communities in this country.
Look, you know, Jimmy Carter would not have been elected if it wasn't for Black folk. And Jimmy Carter then engaged in appointments of Black folk throughout the administration. But he also engaged in austerity policies that devastated our communities and urban centers.
So much so that some of the Black leaders who supported him said he betrayed them. So you get Black folk appointed, they get their invitations to the White House. You get a certain kind of Black elite that are, "We're back." Same thing happened with Clinton.
You get these Black folk appointed, Black political class expands. What do we get? We get the crime bill. We get welfare reform. We get legislation that devastates our community. So we're gonna have to watch it very closely. Is he just appointing Black folk and then those folk provide cover for him to govern from the center right? Or will we see a fundamental change in the political frame? Which is what we need in my view.
Lee: How deep is this division? And how serious of a fight has to take place within the party to reconcile these ideas of, as you said, the old white working class, those good hard-working folks in the middle who came to their senses and this rising Black coalition?
Glaude: Oftentimes these labels get in the way. So I think we need to be a kind of post-label politics, right? And just get about the work of imagining a new America. But in order to do that we've got to tell ourselves the truth about how we got here.
And how we got here is in part what I'm hearing out of the mouths of those centrist Democrats. I'm still baffled, given the scale of what we are experiencing, how in the hell are you gonna reach back to that? You remember that sister? I don't know if you saw this on the news, that sister, I think she was in New York. And she was like, "Go back to what?"
Lee: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Glaude: "I was in the street protesting for Trayvon. What are you asking me to go back to? I don't understand." Right? And it's like King saying, you know, at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, remember--
Glaude: --when King says, "People want us to go back to normal. Let me tell you what was normal." And then he starts listing all of that violence. "What do they want us to go back to?" No, no, no, no. We're not gonna do that, man. We're not gonna allow them to reconcile themselves on our backs again. We've been through that.
Lee: So you have this moment where Joe Biden is saying basically, "I've got your back, I will pay you back, thank you for your loyalty." But I do wonder if the modern Democratic Party has ever kept its promise to its most loyal base, Black folks. Have we seen this song and dance before? Or have there been times in the past where the party has paid Black folks back?
Glaude: There are moment, of course, when you think about the Great Society and what that represented. How the Second Reconstruction, as historians called it, the mid-20th century, represented this effort to kind of respond to racial apartheid in the country and in the South in particular.
But, you know, for the most part it's just been kind of tinkering around the edges. I've written that, you know, America's always talking about that it's changing. This is James Baldwin's language, right? America always talk about it changing, but it never changes, man.
Lee: Hm. Yeah.
Glaude: And, you know, what we've been going through are these cycles of betrayal, right? Where we have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and continue to, you know, push this damn boulder up the hill again. And depending upon your view you could say those tinkering around the edges mattered. Right?
Glaude: They made you possible, Dr. Glaude. Right? 'Cause your daddy couldn't be you. Right? But then the response is, okay, but what had to be lost in the interim?
Lee: Well, how do we hold-- as Black folks, the we, the big we-- hold the Biden administration accountable for the promises that have been made to us, right, to have our back?
Glaude: Well, I think, you know, the first thing we have to do is, A) you know, be clear about a couple of things. One, COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on our communities. So as he rolls out the Biden plan, we have to see how that will address us in particular.
We have to see what he's doing specifically with regards to the economic crisis that we face. Because that crisis is layered on top of the hell we've already been catching. So we can't hear, "lift all boats" thing. We can't hear what we heard in 2008 and 2012 from Barack Obama.
No, no, no, no. Our boat has holes in it. We need a new boat. Right? So we can't hear that language from him. We need to see targeted policies and what that will look like. And the third kind of leg to the stool has everything to do with policing. Right? With criminal justice.
Not just simply reform, but to kind of shift the conversation from law and order to safety and security. 'Cause every community wants to be safe and every community wants to be secure. And the let's see who he puts around him. Because the appointments will reflect how he governs.
Lee: Joe Biden has said how proud he was to nominate Kamala Harris, right? And he's fully aware of the history and what it means. And I have a theory that he might be actually good for Black folks in the sense of his legacy, at this stage of the game in his life.
And feeling like maybe he will work to rectify the mass incarceration and his really detrimental role in the '94 crime bill. Do you think that has as much power, the idea of legacy, as does the politics? And whether he's gonna shift to the middle, and the left, and all that stuff?
Glaude: You know, first of all, he already has his place in history as the vice president of the first Black president. And the first president to run on a ticket with a Black woman president. So he's already unique--
Glaude: --in American history. And we can't take that away from him. And I can remember in some of his stump speeches he says, "We've got to change. We've got to address systemic racism. We've got to finally end this." And he says, "I'm serious, folks. We have to do something." Right?
And I've always read that, "I'm serious, folks," as a signification on the past. That he is, at least in those speeches, he was announcing to us that he will do something substantive to address how racism has distorted and disfigured our democracy. It might be within the limits of his own political imagination. But I heard a kind of earnestness in those moments that kind of made my eyes light up.
Lee: That's exactly who we are. It's central. It's core. Do you think that an administration can actually begin to disentangle those things?
Glaude: I gotta have faith in it.
Glaude: Otherwise you give up on--
Lee: Right. What else is there?
Glaude: Otherwise, you know, I'm drinking too much. I'm already drinking too much.
Lee: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Glaude: Right? You know, this is the thing that Baldwin said to us, Trymaine, and I think this is so key, doc. And he's saying this after King is murdered. Right? And he collapses. Goes to pieces. And he says, "Human beings are at once disasters and miracles."
We have to protect ourselves from the disasters that we've become, though, right? But we have to understand that if we show up-- and this is the grandness of our tradition-- in the most imaginable places, miracles happen. So if we show up there's no guarantee of a just outcome. But at least we have a chance for a miracle.
Lee: Good brother, thank you very much for the word, man.
Glaude: Appreciate you.
Lee: We're all tryin' to figure these things out and, you know, if the organizers on the ground, you know, have anything to say I can tell that they're gonna keep pushing. 'Cause this is the beginning. This ain't the end of anything. This is just the beginning. (LAUGHTER)
Glaude: Let's just buckle up. (LAUGH) (MUSIC)
Lee: Eddie Glaude is chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University and an analyst for MSNBC. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan.
Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.