It may feel like a million years ago, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, but at one point Vice President Joe Biden’s hopes for securing the Democratic nomination for the presidency seemed dead in the water.
Now, he’s secured the nomination earlier than any Democratic candidate has in several cycles?
What happened? In part, black Southern voters showed up to support him en masse. It’s the same pattern that shaped the 2016 Democratic nomination. Democratic candidates may not win Southern states, but Southern states choose Democratic nominees.
It’s a phenomenon that still confounds a lot of political talking heads. Particularly those on the coasts. But it didn’t surprise Michael Harriot, an award-winning senior writer for the Root and one of the most influential voices in the South today.
He’s based in Birmingham, a place he’s called the “Blackest City in America,” but his impact is national. This week on the Reckon Interview, we discuss black voters and the Democratic Party, how a column of his dealt a strong blow to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, and, of course, Southern history.
We’ll also have a live follow up interview with Michael Harriot at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 30 on the Reckon Facebook page.
On why Southern black voters supported Biden
Well the point that I’ve been making, and I make about a lot of things is there is no national conference call where, you know, all the black people get together and decide on who they’re gonna vote for. People vote for as many varied and wide reasons as white voters.
And so I kind of point out a lot of the things that I hear and I talk to people about – and not necessarily me going to people and asking them about politics. I think because I’m a writer, as you would know, people think that’s what you want to talk about. So if you talk to someone they’re going to ask you about whatever beat you cover, if you cover Alabama football, even if they’re not an Alabama fan, they’re going to talk about college football. And so people talk to me a lot about politics.
And one of the things that I noticed is like, there is no real one conclusion on why people voted for Biden versus Bernie, but there are a number of reasons. And, so, I’ve been pointing those out. And, you know, some people will take it as you advocating for one candidate or another when you hear or report things that you hear. But you know, I think that to understand black voters, again, you have to understand the influences of them being in the South. Like being in the South for black voters who typically vote Democrat who typically vote, you know, kind of progressive and who live under a system in red states and who is who’ve existed kind of under white supremacy, all of that factors into everything that they do. And so some of those are the motivating factors.
…We forget, when we think of the Democratic Party, we think of the president or the person who’s contending for the presidency. But we forget about the state representatives. We forget about the Congressmen and the Senators who also represent those red states. The Democratic Party wouldn’t have a base if it wasn’t for black voters and 20% of the black people in America live in the South. So the people who support that party are disproportionately in red states, right?
…I grew up in a small town, right, and I remember I used to have to go to piano lessons every Wednesday at like five o’clock. And I remember my piano teacher was also the local music teacher. She taught at all of the black elementary schools. Now the schools in my town were segregated, this is surprising, until 1995. So I would go to her house – and her husband was also a history teacher, a middle school history teacher – and everyone would be at the house. I would have to kind of wade through their living room. And it would always be filled with people talking about one issue or another. And I’d have to wait for them to finish their conversation. So I would kind of eavesdrop and get kind of the lesson on what was going on in the city. And I learned that they were all Democrats.
Now, I was homeschooled. So even though my mother, you know, made us learn history and all of that. Like, I really didn’t know at that time what “Democrats” was. All I knew is that you can’t say anything bad about it in my house. You couldn’t say anything bad about the Democrats. So I thought it was a religion. And so I used to have this idea that this was the secret black religion that was, like, helping all the black people in town. And so that’s how I thought of the Democratic Party. And I think that’s how a lot of people think about the Democratic Party.
As you said, if you grew up in Lowndes County, or any small town in America, the pool of people who are on the school board – black people – like there’s always like one black person who gets to make it to the school board, or on the city council. And that person is usually a teacher; that person is usually an officer in the NAACP; that person is often a pastor or a deacon at the church, right? So it’s all the same pool of people. So when you hear people talk about the Democratic Party, those are the people that come to mind, right?
It reminds you of those people, the people that you knew, because nobody knows Tom Perez, right? Nobody knows, you know, who the executive director of the DNC campaign fund is.
They know those people who helped them keep that factory out of their neighborhood. They know the people who helped their child get a scholarship to college. So when Bernie Sanders, for instance, distanced himself from the Party for 30 years, and then when he runs for president wants that party to get behind him and endorse him, a lot of what I heard is, “well, he ain’t no Democrat.”
And that doesn’t mean that those people believe that Joe Biden is necessarily on their side. But he played on that team, right? Like it’s just like if you have a kicker who plays for your college football team who’s terrible. He misses. Like you might think that kicker is trash. But if someone says “Hey, man, that 2020 Alabama football team is really great. And we’re gonna see if they’re better than the 1998 Ohio State football team.” You’re gonna choose the Alabama football team even though that trash kicker was on your team. And Joe Biden might be, to some people that trash kicker, but he was on the team that they rooted for.
On Birmingham history
One of the things that always struck me after moving here is how much history the average citizen in Birmingham knows. And it’s because their parents and their grandparents were participants in it. It’s not just some stuff that they learned out of a history book.
You know, they walk past the 16th Street Baptist Church, they walk down the streets that were bombed. You know, I remember walking through Dynamite Hill and just thinking about how crazy it is that those bombings happened so often that it just became the nickname of an entire section of the city. And those people remember that.
So that is infused almost into the DNA of this city, the civil rights struggle, not so much the racism as it is the fight against racism. The resistance to this national policy that [civil rights foot soldiers] created, not just created, but were at the front of that movement and sacrificed.
For black people, the 1960s and, especially in Birmingham, is our Greatest Generation. Right? We lost people who had to fight for their children just as people in the 40s had to go overseas and fight Nazis. And so that still infused into the DNA of this city.
For more of Michael Harriot’s thoughts on civil rights history, his confrontation with Pete Buttigieg, and more, listen to the full episode here.