Joe Biden's political resurrection in the race for the Democratic nomination was due largely to overwhelming support from black voters. Yet racial tensions laid bare by nationwide protests have revealed a problem for Biden in the November election -- he doesn't excite younger black voters who want change, not just a sympathetic ear.
Biden's African-American supporters have been urging him to offer concrete solutions to the trifecta of crises hitting black voters in 2020 -- they are disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus, the recession and the police brutality that drew them into the streets. And they say not being Donald Trump isn't enough.
People of color are expressing "anger, exhaustion and a real hunger for change," said Aimee Allison, president of She the People, which focuses on elevating women of color in politics. "But I'm not hearing people excited about Democrats and, frankly, about the Biden campaign. Joe Biden has to step up and talk directly about racial justice and what his plan as president would be."
The support of younger black voters is crucial to Biden as the pandemic may squelch older voters' turnout in key cities like Detroit and Philadelphia and there are numerous states trending Democratic, like Georgia and Texas, where the young black vote could make a difference.
Like any Democratic presidential candidate in the last 50 years, Biden is in no danger of losing black support. But African-Americans must also be enthusiastic enough to turn out, and activists warn that some younger black voters are uninspired by Biden's candidacy and are skeptical he will deliver real change.
Trump has tried to argue that the strong economy he oversaw before the pandemic struck was reason enough for blacks to support him. But his response to the protesters this week, calling violent demonstrators "thugs" and threatening to use the military, likely shattered any hope of their votes.
In data collected by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape and analyzed by the Washington Post, in April and May, 68% of black registered voters under 30 said they planned to vote for Biden. In 2016, 85% of young black voters backed Hillary Clinton, while Barack Obama's numbers in 2008 and 2012 were 10 points higher and turnout of young black voters surged. Biden's overall numbers with black voters are much higher, boosted by strong support among older people. He was backed by 89% of black registered voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday.
Some black Democrats say Biden has to tackle his Senate record head on, including a forceful denunciation of the 1994 crime bill. Rival Bernie Sanders, who remains popular with younger voters of all races, flogged Biden during the primaries with his authorship of a bill that many believe in retrospect made the criminal justice system worse for blacks. It was widely supported at the time by the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats.
"It worked in some areas but it failed in others," Biden said in July, pointing to the Violence Against Women Act and the assault-weapons ban as two important measures that were in the bill. "Like every major change you go back and make it better." He has not addressed it amid the fresh discussion of criminal justice in the week since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
"Joe Biden absolutely must atone for a political record that many would say has resulted in the police brutality that they're experiencing in their communities," said Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury. "He needs to make an acknowledgment that because of his actions people got hurt. But he also needs to talk about how he will make it better."