Commentary: Does Biden take black voters for granted? His latest gaffe makes it seem that way
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Commentary: Does Biden take black voters for granted? His latest gaffe makes it seem that way

A screengrab of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden appearing on Now This News to lay out his general election economic argument, Wilmington, Del., on May 8, 2020. (Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/TNS)

If Joe Biden is counting on African American votes to win the White House in November, he may want to reboot his outreach strategy.

During a radio interview Friday morning with Charlamagne tha God on the nationally syndicated, "The Breakfast Club," Biden said that "if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black."

It took a handful of nanoseconds for the predictable response.

Here's a thought for the Biden campaign committee: bumper stickers that say, "Win this one for the Gaffer!"

Biden may have thought he was joking or being edgy, but a white Democratic politician questioning the racial identity of African American voters who are less than enthused about his campaign raises significant issues.

First, the presumption that black voters have no other choice - him or President Donald Trump - in the November election is just the kind of marginalization by the Democratic Party that black voters have stewed about for years. They can also stay home, or vote for neither of the above.

Second, Biden, who had a long career in the U.S. Senate, also has a mixed record when it comes to African Americans, particularly his role in passing stringent anti-crime bills in the 1980s and 1990s that have disrupted black families and communities amid a frenzy of incarceration arising in part from over-policing of African American neighborhoods.

Those are grounds for skepticism, regardless of whom Biden is running against. And cavalierly dismissing those who might ask hard questions about whether Biden deserves the support of African American voters is not a winning strategy.

Hillary Clinton saw the results of taking African American votes for granted in 2016, when turnout by black voters decreased for the first presidential election since 1996 - Bill Clinton's reelection - in a campaign that drew a record number of people to the polls, according to the Pew Research Center.

This time out, support - and votes - from African Americans could be crucial in turning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Trump won by slight margins (aided by vote suppression in Wisconsin) from the Trump column to the Biden column.

Low turnout among African American voters also was a drag on Clinton in Florida, Iowa and Ohio, which Trump would likely have won anyway because of high turnout among his base support of white, non-college-educated voters.

But that was then and this is now, and driving African American turnout in those states could make a difference as Trump's star has tarnished in the eyes of some of those voters, particularly older ones.

Biden's gaffe Friday probably wasn't a fatal political faux pas by the former vice president, whose middle initial could stand for "Ruh-roh!" But it revealed a troubling undercurrent. The Democrats may have another standard-bearer who takes black voters for granted because the other candidate would be worse on issues that have significant impacts on African American families and communities.

But voters don't have a binary choice, as Clinton learned. The neither-of-the-above option can be appealing for people who don't see voting against someone sufficient motivation to vote at all.

And questioning the racial identity of some black voters because they might be considering Trump didn't help Biden's cause.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and author of six history books, is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

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